Preventing the destruction of Australian publishing

Garth Nix is full of wisdom. He has written a very smart and wise and passionate argument against parallel importing. I agree with every single word.

Basically there are plans to allow booksellers to import foreign English-language editions of books into Australia without restriction. The argument is that this will bring down the heinous price of books. Australian books really are insanely expensive. I’ve seen mass market paperback for more than AU$20.1

However surrendering the Australian market is NOT the way to fix that problem. As Garth writes

I am surprised there is support for an “open” market in Australia because it would be no such thing. It would actually be a “surrendered” market. The entire publishing world still works on the basis of territorial copyright and it will do so for a long time to come, despite electronic editions and the Internet, of which I will have more to say down the page. This is particularly the case with English-language publishing. The USA and the UK have actually been strengthening their respective book copyright regimes, not surrendering them. What is “open” about Australian-published books not being able to be sold in the USA or the UK, but American, British or any other English-language edition from anywhere being able to be freely sold here?

Internet retailers would be able to sell books much much cheaply than real world booksellers because they don’t have to worry about attracting passing customers and thus can have their operations out in the much cheaper boondocks. Unlike the real world booksellers who not only pay higher rents but have to make sure their book shops are well-kept and inviting to customers. They also have to pay more staff. And the bigger the internet retailer—like Amazon—the easier it would be for them to sell books cheaper and wipe out all competition. Parallel importing would be a disaster for local booksellers. Just as it would be a disaster for local publishers.

It would also make it a lot harder for Australian writers to get published:

But besides the Australian publishers and booksellers, you know who would really be affected by a Surrendered Market? Beginning authors, like I was, twenty years ago, when my first book was published by an Australian publisher, and sold by Australian bookshops. That same beginning author, in a brave new world of a Surrendered Market, would likely have only small presses to go to here, or needs must go straight into competition against every English-speaking author in the world who wants to be published in the USA or the UK.

The majority of Australian writers will tell you how difficult it is to get published overseas. The introduction of parallel importing means that will be their only option.

Like Garth I am not speaking from narrow self-interest as the introduction of parallel imports is unlikely to have much of an affect on my career because I am primarily published out of the USA. But Australia is my country and I care passionately about developments that will dramatically reduce the number of Australian books in the world.

I have friends who have not been picked up by publishing houses in the US and the UK because their books are “too Australian” and not sufficiently “universal to have appeal outside Australia”. Whether that’s true or not (I can think of any number of extremely Oz books that have been published to great success in the US) it is true that if you are mainly submitting to a foreign market it will affect how you write. Killing off the local Australian publishing industry is going to kill off many uniquely and wonderfully Australian voices.

I think that will be a disaster.

  1. The US and Australian dollars are approaching parity. []


  1. Alex on #

    I’m one of those dreadful Americans ignorant of what is currently occurring in the publishing world, but reading this entry was very informative, and I agree with you (and Garth) 100%. I had never really thought about how one’s location affects one’s writing, though, of course, that’s true.

    But now I’m curious – is there anything to be done to prevent parallel importing? Other than raise awareness?

  2. nadai on #

    I don’t understand why Australia is considering this when the US market is decidedly not an open market. Even if it does result in cheaper books (and I’d like to see some proof that it would), all that would mean is someone in Australia could buy American books cheaper. Being reduced to a publishing niche in your own country just seems wrong.

  3. Karen on #

    As a Canadian writer, I hear you and totally agree. We’re under similar pressures. Our general experience of “free trade” is that it really only flows one way (and not in our favour).

    Our publishing industry is under extreme pressure to provide cheap books (i.e., match U.S. prices), but economy of scale is making it almost impossible to do. So what happens? Consumers buy the American books instead.

  4. Lizabelle on #

    Thank you for this post. I have bemoaned the price of books in Australia ever since I arrived here, but now I understand the implications I’ll buy from Australian bookshops when I can.

  5. Herenya on #

    OK, so that sounds like it would be completely disasterous! Book prices here aren’t exactly happy-making, but as someone who is Australian and dreams of becoming an author one day, I would much rather pay more money for books than have the chances for want-to-be-authors in Australia disappear.
    Also, I love reading books that are very Australian, because they are about a culture, places and things I can identify with. If that market were to decrease… argh, I don’t want to even think about it!

    Is this still only a proposed idea, or is it really going to go ahead? And is there anything we can we do?

  6. Justine on #

    Lizabelle: Taking the 9% tax off books will help bring the price down. We’re one of the few countries that taxes books. Repealing that would be much more helpful than bringing in parallel importing.

    Herenya: It’s being considered. You could write to Mr Rudd and ask that it not be introduced.

    Prime Minister the Honourable Kevin Rudd MP
    PO Box 476A
    Morningside Qld 4170

  7. cuileann on #

    Wow, this is really interesting. Perhaps I’ll write too. Goodness knows I’ve enough free time.

  8. steph on #

    Thanks for bringing this up.

    As a writer, I have to agree with the points raised here (and other places) about parallel importing. The publishing industry is beleagured enough as it is, without this kind of competition.

    As a bookseller, though, I have to adopt a slightly different point of view. Brick and mortar bookshops in Australia are already losing money to internet retailers – including The exchange rate being what it is, the RRP for books here in Oz can be up to three times as much as that of the US edition. Even with the cost of shipping factored in, the difference in price between locally and internationally distributed books is significant. Also, individual shoppers on Amazon don’t have to wait until they’ve accumulated a minimum order AND still pay shipping, which means they will almost inevitably get their books faster than if they went through us. I can’t really begrudge them the business; when the same book is that much cheaper and if the shipping time isn’t prohibitive like it used to be, what are you going to do? At least there’s a generation of people out there who are determined enough to get their hands on the books they love (or will love, only haven’t met yet).

    And, as you mentioned, as the bookselling industry suffers, so does the publishing industry. Follow the ripples for a bit, and it’s not too difficult to see how this could lead to further books being published.

    So, no, parallel importing is not the solution – but there is a problem. I’m interested in the idea of making books exempt from GST, or perhaps introducting a customs tax, but I don’t think I’m enough of an economist to say what that would do in the long term.

  9. Justine on #

    Steph: I could not agree more. The price of books at home is NUTS and the GST should not be applied to them. That would be a start but more needs to be done to bring the price down. Twenty-five dollars for a paperback is INSANE.

    Like you, I’m not sure what else can be done. But it’s true something really has to happen to protect booksellers like you. I feel like I grew up at Gleebooks and Galaxy books in Sydney. They recommended books, let me hang around talking books and gossiping with them. They’ve supported my career now that I’m published, hosting book launches and signings and handselling my books like you wouldn’t believe. Hell, Galaxy even gave me a job helping with stocktaking one time when I was totally broke. The thought of them going under fills my heart with despair.

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