Presenter: ian macrae



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IN TOUCH – BBC Radio 4
TX: 18.08.09 2040-2100
PRESENTER: IAN MACRAE

Macrae

Hello. The blind cricket world is stumped tonight, we'll be finding out why. And we've some answers for the listener who wanted to know who decides which books make it on to audio and how and why they do.


But first, ahead of the deciding Ashes test this Thursday, we start with a different cricketing story.
The Pakistanis are currently the world champions in blind cricket, and last Tuesday they were due to visit the UK to play a four-match series against England but the tour was cancelled at short notice when the team was refused entry to the country. The BBC's Aleem Maqboul takes up the story from Islamabad.
Maqboul

Well cricket for blind people is quite big news here, especially since Pakistan won the third blind cricket world cup which was played on home soil three years ago. The team, as you say, had been invited by Blind Cricket England and Wales to play those three one-day internationals and a 20/20 match against England. But they've just finished a nine day training camp in preparation and have been told their visa applications have been rejected because the UK Border Agency said it couldn't be certain that all the cricketers would come back to Pakistan after the tour had been completed. Now the chairman of the Blind Cricket Council here and former blind cricket captain, Syed Sultan Shah, told me that had been a big blow to the players.


Shah

We are world champions and we are national team of Pakistan and we're representing the whole nation there. Eighteen peoples are blind, visually challenged, so they are not able to sleep there or stay there. We are just going for the play cricket with the England blind cricket team, so we are very hurt, we are very disturbed and feel insult.


Macrae

So what's the response been from the UK authorities over there in Pakistan?


Maqboul

Well actually the statement's come from the UK Border Agency and they've issued a statement, they said they'll make no apology for maintaining tough border controls created to prevent abuse of the immigration system. It also says if applications don't contain the necessary evidence and they're not satisfied that people will return at the end of their visit then the visas will be refused. But they've also added that the UK Border Agency is committed to facilitating sporting, cultural and arts exchanges. Now I put all of that to the same man - Syed Sultan Shah - he said though the Blind Cricket Council here supplied letters from the Pakistan Cricket Board, that the ECB also provided - the England Cricket Board also provided the players names and passport numbers. The Pakistan Ministry of Sport sanctioned the trip officially and also all the players signed affidavits to say they'd return home or their families could be penalised. And they've toured England twice before as well. So that reasoning by the UKBA didn't wash with him. But now they're worried that this might have implications for the future.


Macrae

What might they be then?


Maqboul

Well as I said Pakistan are the world champions at the moment, the next blind cricket world cup is due to be held in England. Now the former cricket captain that I spoke to - Syed Sultan Shah - is also not just head of the Blind Cricket Council here in Pakistan but also represents Asian countries - India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal - are all due to play in that world cup and he is worried that potentially many of the players that want to attend, and particularly the Pakistan team that wants to defend its title in England, won't be able to get the permission to travel. And so now he is petitioning the ICC - the International Cricket Council - to think about moving the next world cup if these visa issues are going to continue.


Macrae

Aleem Maqboul thank you very much and we also spoke to Blind Cricket England and Wales and then they referred us on to the England and Wales Cricket Board - the game's overall governing body - and I was joined earlier on the phone by Ian Martin, the ECB's manager for disability cricket. He gave me his reaction to this situation.


Martin

Well obviously it's very disappointing that the world champions, Pakistan, were unable to get their visas to come over to England to play. Our own blind cricket team are on the crest of a wave at the moment following a successful tour to Australia before Christmas and we saw very much this series as a measure of how far our own team had come, who else better to pitch yourself against than the world champions. So to learn that they weren't able to get their visas to travel to England is very disappointing indeed.


Macrae

And what kind of a reaction has it stirred up among the England blind cricket team?


Martin

Very, very disappointed, you know, because the guys had a great tour to Australia before Christmas last year and they've prepared thoroughly this year for a tough series against Pakistan so to learn very late on that the Pakistanis weren't going to be able to come over and fulfil their commitment to tour is naturally disappointing to all involved.


Macrae

And what about that threat, apparent threat, following the request from blind cricketers in Asia for the venue of the world cup in 2011 to be moved - what's the likely implications of that going to be?


Martin

Well the situation at the moment is that the blind cricket world cup is organised by an organisation called the World Blind Cricket Council. Now they approached the England and Wales Cricket Board earlier in the year to request the 2011 world cup to be staged in England and our response at that time was certainly to say provisionally we would be happy with that on the understanding that they presented to us a document stating how the tournament would be organised and the logistics involved. Now clearly visas would form part of the logistical arrangements for getting teams into England for any such tournament. So I do believe that the World Blind Cricket Council will need to address this issue and look at it quite seriously prior to submitting their tendering document for the tournament.


Macrae

But is there anything that the ECB can do to mitigate that potential threat?


Martin

Well I think in this circumstance, with the cancelled tour this time, we did everything in our power really to notify the British High Commission of the legitimacy of the tour and the arrangements that were in place for the Pakistanis when they arrived in England. There's very little more that we can do. We can write to the British High Commission in Islamabad and state that these tours are official and they are recognised by the governing bodies, outside of that we can't do much more.


Macrae

Ian Martin from the England and Wales Cricket Board.


Now blind cricket fans who are disappointed not to be catching the Pakistani team might well be consoled by the fact that the domestic blind cricket cup final takes place this Saturday. It's at Edgbaston in Birmingham, and it's the first time that that particular match has been played on a fully accredited test ground. Entry is free and the match kicks off, or whatever the cricketing term is, at 1.30.
Now following our recent audio book review programme, Jeremy Canty contacted us to air his frustrations about the dearth of books in audio format.
Canty

My first point was about the availability of audio books in the United States compared with the United Kingdom. It's very annoying to read reviews of books that are available here in hard copy and apparently available in audio book form in the United States but not for sale to customers in this country and that even applies to audible where it's just a question of downloading, it's not a physical product. And my second question, was really about how choices are made as to which books will be made into audio books, because there seems to be - to me some rhyme and reason, obviously detective fiction and science and fiction and bestsellers in general are often made into audio books, particularly in the case of contemporary fiction it seems to me that there are very strange decisions made about which books are going to go into audio and I can't really find a rhyme or reason in them in sales or reviews or anything like that.


Macrae

Well to try to get some answers for Jeremy I'll be talking very soon to Chris McKee, who's the managing director of the UK's largest audio book retailer. But first Mani Djazmi has been on the case. So Mani, what have you found out?


Djazmi

Well I've been talking to Ali Muirden, who's chair of the Audio Book Publishing Association, a voluntary organisation of major audio book publishers. I put Jeremy's first point to her - why does America have more audio books than we do?


Muirden

The American market is a lot older than the UK audio market, they've actually been producing and selling audio books for way longer than we have. They also have a much larger turnover in terms of the people buying audio books there. I think this is due for two reasons. One is that the retailers in America have seen this as a really good lucrative area for sales and so they give it a genuinely high profile space within the stores. They also have a lot longer distances to drive so I think that that makes a big difference - people are very willing to pay $30 or whatever for an audio book over there, unabridged often. I also think - and this is in no way shape or form am I trying to suck up to BBC Radio - but I do believe that they don't have a tradition of a great radio system like we've got in England, in that obviously they have lots of radio stations but they're kind of sporadic in terms of their coverage and they don't tend to cover the spoken word in the way that British radio does.


Djazmi

In terms of turnover and profit what's the difference between the American market and the British market?


Muirden

Well the American market they would probably say their turnover is somewhere in the region of about a billion dollars a year for audio alone. In comparison to the market here in the UK we would be looking at somewhere in the region of about 75 million annually, so there's nowhere near as much being spent on audio books in this country as there is in the United States.


Djazmi

As for Jeremy's other frustration - that the policy of selecting which books are produced in audio seems rather haphazard, Ali Muirden says that actually the criteria that determine this policy are specifically commercial.


Muirden

It isn't random, it's very soundly based in a commercial decision by most publishers. The truth of the matter is that audio books are extremely expensive to produce and so obviously any publisher wishing to publish a title they are going to choose something which they're pretty sure is going to sell well in the high street and on download.


Djazmi

So what's the decision based on - is it title or an author - well known author?


Muirden

They would base it on authors who are well known, who frequently would reach the top 20 or the top 30 in the bestseller lists. Anybody in the crime and thriller genre is also a good bet because they're very popular in audio. But generally they would be picking the kind of A list authors to go into audio because they know for sure that they're the kind of thing that will sell.


Macrae

Now as an avid reader myself I know the answer to this really - but just round up where most blind and partially sighted people get audio books from.


Djazmi

Well there are a range of places really - shops, the RNIB Talking Book Library and its Bookstream book club, several audio book websites but possibly the largest number of us use audible.co.uk. I also asked avid reader Lyndell Bywater for her recommendations.


Bywater

I tend to prefer online sources although I do use Braille and CDs and tapes as well. But I use online sources because I find the range is better. So, for instance, I'm a subscriber to audible.co.uk but there is a slight frustration for me with this in that for a certain period of time you could become a member of audible.com and a member of audible.co.uk at the same time which gave you access to everything that was available in the States and in the UK. For reasons I suppose of US copyright law they closed the loophole, so that now you can't become a member of audible.com even if you're a member of audible.co.uk and I unfortunately missed that little opening and there are a number of books which I would like to get hold of on audible.com which I simply can't have access to because I don't have the right membership. When it comes to getting hold of audio books I do know that there are ways of doing that online which are not, shall we say, entirely legal. I personally don't feel very happy about that and I feel quite often a bit torn. For instance if a friend of mine has a book in audio format which I'd like to borrow if it were a book in print I could simply pick if off their bookshelf and read it and gave it back, if it's an audio book and I go to copy it that technically puts me in breach of the copyright of the book and that frustrates me a lot because it means that if I want to "borrow" the book I'm effectively doing something illegal whereas actually the cost of audio books is often so prohibitive that it would be quite helpful to be able to copy them.


Macrae

We're in very familiar territory here Mani but for people like Lyndell and Jeremy what hope might there be for the future?


Djazmi

Well there is hope and according to Ali Muirden it's in your pocket Ian, on your mobile phone.


Muirden

What they can see is that people are going to be downloading over the internet wirelessly much more in the future, the iPhone has already proved hugely popular around the world. The mobile phone companies obviously they're always looking for new opportunities for new revenue and people are beginning to download eBooks onto their mobile phones and read them as they travel to work etc on the tube or whatever. It's already hugely popular in Japan and it's only a matter of time before tariffs allow people to do this so that it's not prohibitively expensive. So it's going to really change the market in the future.


Macrae

Well as I said I'm joined now by Chris McKee, who's the managing director of that online audio book service audible.co.uk. So first of all then Chris just what is your selection policy?


McKee

I think it's fair to say we share their frustrations and we as a retailer want to sell as many titles in audio as we possibly can and we rely upon the publishers to actually create the titles and get them to us. And they of course have to secure the rights for those titles for the UK market. And we're constantly looking at the titles that are available in our US store at audible.com and working out how we can get those into the store at audible.co.uk and it involves going and finding out who owns the rights, how we clear them, how we secure them and how we work that through with the publishers. It's time consuming but eventually we hope that we're going to increase the already extensive range of 35,000 titles that we have in the UK store.


Macrae

But isn't there something to be said for you, as a company, going into book production yourselves?


McKee

Yeah that's a good point and in fact we've already embarked upon that and in fact just that week we've announced the release of a series of 30 great classic works by people like Saul Bello and Kurt Vonnegut that we felt ought to be available in audio, that the publishers who are working on a sort of commercial basis felt couldn't make work but we felt we could make work and so we've now released those and we've brought 30 great titles to the market that weren't previously available.


Macrae

Premium in terms of price?


McKee

If you're users of our service I'm sure you're aware that we have a membership plan where you pay 7.99 and you can get any one of those 35,000 titles each month for 7.99. And really for an entertainment format like this and the number of hours of entertainment you get out of it 7.99 seems a pretty reasonable price to pay.


Macrae

Okay. But buying individual titles can be an expensive business.


McKee

Audio books can be an expensive medium but we feel that by working with this membership plan we're able to bring the prices down to a reasonable level and that's the kind of the raison d'etre of it.


Macrae

Okay so here you are, as you say, desperate to sell audio books, you've got thousands, probably millions, of visually impaired or other print disabled people gagging to read them, what can be done to bring those two things together and just create a bigger pool of audio books?


McKee

It's really - as Ali Muirden mentioned - it's down to the commercial factors first of all to work out what makes sense for the publishers and they're really the people who are driving this at the moment. We can see gaps in the market and we can go out and try and exploit those by recording titles ourselves and we'll continue to do so but I guess the other element is, again as Ali referred to, the relative size of the US and the UK market, if we want to expand the size of the UK market, which brings more turnover into it and more ability to record more titles, we need to bring audio books out to a wider audience and that's one of the things that we're continue doing - trying to get people to try it out and we've worked with people like the Radio Times to make offers available, this month we're in Top Gear magazine and we're constantly working with media partners to get the word out, get more people using this kind of entertainment medium.


Macrae

In terms of what you produce do you take any account of customer feedback, customer requests?


McKee

Yes we do, we're continually getting customer feedback and we encourage it and we relish receiving it. We'll then go to publishers and point out that there's a latent demand for a specific title and encourage them to record it or indeed if there is no specific publisher involved we'll go and look at ways of getting the rights and recording it ourselves.


Macrae

And the big question that often rears its head whenever we talk about books on this programme is abridgement. What determines whether or not you go for an abridgement, is it simply what the publishers offer you?


McKee

By and large yes and increasingly the publishers are starting to produce abridged and unabridged versions simultaneously and the unabridged version is basically for the download market. We're not constrained by how many CDs or how many cassettes are in the pack and that's what determines the need for abridgement in the first place. Being completely unfettered we'd prefer to have unabridged recordings, we know that's what our users want and we'll go and secure those if not from the trade publishers we'll go and secure them from the library publishers so that we can get them into our store. And indeed all the titles that we record ourselves are exclusively unabridged.


Macrae

Well Chris McKee thank you very much for joining us and Mani Djazmi thanks for your earlier contribution too. And that's almost it for this week but any comments or queries are always welcome from you, you can do that either via the action line - 0800 044 044 - or via the website at bbc.co.uk/radio4/intouch. And there you'll find a podcast of the programme, which will be available from tomorrow. And also details of other websites from which audio books can be obtained and downloaded.


Next week Peter's here again but for now from me, Ian Macrae, producer Cheryl Gabriel and the team, goodnight now.
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