The problem of being a small English-speaking country

Some more thoughts on yesterday’s post:

Australia, like New Zealand and Canada and Jamaica and South Africa and many other mainly English-speaking countries, has had a long battle to publish its own stories by and for its own people. The majority of the books we buy and read are not by Australians but come from the UK and the USA. Creating our own publishing industry, which published Australian books was a struggle and to this day many Australian books are subsidised by the Australian government.

But despite all the obstacles and expenses there is an Australian publishing industry and it publishes many wonderful Australian writers. Peter Carey, now an internationally known writer, was first published by the University of Queensland Press. Well-known Australian YA writers like Margo Lanagan, Melina Marchetta, Jaclyn Moriarty, Garth Nix, and Marcus Zusak were all first published in Australia and that’s where they established their reputations. Their success in other markets came later.

If parallel importing had existed when they were first establishing themselves would they have been nurtured in the same way and gone on to the same kind of success?

I also wonder about the writers who are successful at home but have never made the transition to broader markets. What will happen to them under parallel importing? Will they no longer be published at all? Or be published by such small presses that it will be impossible to find their books?

And what about the Australian classics that are rarely, if ever, published or read overseas? Books like Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom, Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians, Barbara Baynton’s Bush Studies, Sally Morgan’s My Place not to mention the works of Banjo Patterson, Ruth Park and Henry Lawson. What overseas publishing house will be interested in keeping them in print?

It’s also important to remember that those writers who are published overseas have to change their voices in order make sense to non-Australian audiences. As Nick Earls points out in his letter to Prime Minister Rudd against parallel importing, foreign editions of Australian books are not the same as the homegrown edition:

Also, it is common for changes—sometimes substantial changes—to be made before a book is published in an export market, particularly the US. Many Australian references are lost and idiomatic language is altered. These are compromises we make in order to be published in the US, and to communicate specifically with US readers.

Parallel importing must not be adopted.


  1. Peter C. Hayward on #

    There’s an obivous comparison to be made here – TV. There have been roughly 10 Australian TV shows made in the last 15 years, because we get most of our entertainment from America and Britain. As someone trying to break into the Australian TV Industry, I really wish that they would reinstitute the tariffs – make it more expensive to import American TV than it is to make Australian TV. Think of the hundreds of actors and writers who would come out of the woodwork!

    A man can dream…a man can dream.

  2. hillary! on #

    I’m sorry if I seem stupid, but what exacty is parallel importing?
    And, maybe it’s just me, but I love it when books are published in America that are by Australians, or the British, or even the Irish. I love the difference in slang, I love that the same language can have so many different accents and pronunciations and…stuff…Like HTDYF. I love that the way…I love that the same language can be so diverse. So why would a publishing company want to change that.

  3. Robert on #

    It always bothered me that changes would be made to non-American English language books and movies when they were released in the US. Personally, I love to see and learn about the different things in the world. Especially when they are so much more accessible to me when compared to what I’d have to go through to learn another language entirely.

  4. cuileann on #

    I <3 The Aussie YA Crew.

    🙁 I haven’t thought about why before, but it’s true that I can’t remember ever reading a book by a Kiwi author…

  5. Ted Lemon on #

    I have to say that I’m skeptical about this whole thread. The notion is that without a monopoly, this industry would cease to exist.

    One implication that’s difficult to accept is that Australian books would not succeed in Australia if imported books were cheaper. I think if this is true, this reflects poorly on Australian authors.

    Here in the ‘states, lots of books are available as trade paperbacks, from small presses, and so on. People buy them despite the availability of cheaper mass-market paperbacks.

    You go on to suggest that Australian authors would not be reprinted outside of the country if not for the existence of these trade restrictions. Again, this really slights Australian authors. Can they really be that bad? I doubt it.

    The fact is that I’ve very much enjoyed translations of books written in Russian, available only in trade paperback, here in the U.S., published by a U.S. publisher (I’m referring to the Night Watch series). For dedicated readers, a good book is a good book, and we will find a way to get it.

    But only if we know about it. And there, I think, lies your problem. If a book is unknown outside of Australia, it won’t be read outside of Australia. If you want to win this battle, you have to stop trying to level the playing field by making one set of alternatives less available than another, and start trying to level it my making the other set of alternatives *more* available.

    Australia is cool, and different, and other, and I like reading stories that take place there. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed your Magic or Madness trilogy; indeed, much as I like New York, I really enjoyed the parts that took place in Australia more. I have trouble believing other U.S. readers feel differently.

    And BTW, I just finished the second of two Iain Banks books I’ve read recently. You may think of the UK publishing industry as a juggernaut, but the availability of UK authors here in the U.S. is a relatively recent, very welcome, development. Most of my favorite science fiction right now is coming from the U.K.

    So I’m sorry, but I don’t buy the argument that Australia needs more protectionism in their book market. If anything, you lot need less of it.

  6. lotti on #

    It’s because we’ve got such a small market. I’m from New Zealand, but I would really hate to be labelled as a “New Zealand author”, because people in the US kind of have a prejudice against us, for some reason. It may be because people like Des Hunt and Tessa Duder (both amazing writers) stick to writing about the places they know, which makes no sense to people from America or Europe. I agree wholeheartedly with you Justine; books from smaller English-speaking countries have their own unique voice, and cannot be reproduced in the same way in the US or UK.

  7. emmaco on #

    Ted I don’t think it’s just a question of demand for Australian books. If there aren’t Australian publishers (because they can’t compete against the big US/UK ones) then the same range of Aussie titles mightn’t be published in the first place. Of course some will still get published, but the very Australian ones (with language etc intact) are going to be of less interest to o/s publishers. And as Justine said, many authors who are now famous started off small in Australia – I don’t know that Garth Nix’s first books have been published outside Australia, and if they hadn’t been would he have gone on to write all of his other books?

  8. Kate on #

    Hi Justine, just thought I’d let you know that the Productivity Commission has been asked to review parallel importation of books in Australia. Very soon they will have a page for the project up at their website at which will include key dates and protocols for making a submission, which I encourage Australian authors and publishers to do.

    Best wishes,

  9. Amber on #

    Ted, it’s not a monopoly. Apart from the tax – which yes, would be a way to go instead – the reasons why books cost more in territories such as Australia, Canada and NZ, as Karen commented on the previous post, are also to do with higher costs of scale, production, and transportation (and half-decent wages!) in our more sparsely-populated countries. The CDN/US dollar parity was a black day for Canuck publishing, and booksellers were in the firing line.

    Unlike Nick Earls, I _have_ been lucky enough to read some brilliant Kiwi authors ‘under the age of fifty’ recently, though most are fearsomely hard to come by outside NZ. It would be miserable if the same were to happen to Australia because of this.

    I think the majority of people will always vote with their dollar for the cheaper alternative. There will still be some who get why they are paying more and purposely choose to do so. If they are forced to, indies and publishers in these little-sister outposts of ours will take the parallel knock and find ways to survive as they have up till now – publishing fewer titles, creating buying alliances and so on. For a bit longer at least. And by then we’ll all have an electronic reader and our books will be downloaded from The Internet, which as we all know is located in…hey, where the heck _does_ The Internet live, anyway?

    Cuileann, on NZ authors, you will find Fleur Beale’s books published in the US. Brigid Lowry, though I think she lives in Aus now, is a Kiwi. Her books are very funny. For *non-YA* books you will find Lloyd Jones of course, and Keri Hulme’s Bone People, which won the Booker some years ago. Read Rachael King’s The Sound of Butterflies and C K Stead’s My Name Was Judas. You may also find Maurice Gee’s books – e.g. Salt – in the US, and Witi Ihimaera, e.g Sky Dancer. And Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy is also from NZ!

  10. Justine on #

    Kate: Thanks. Will do.

    Ted: This is not about monopolies because the 30-day rule means that books are imported into the Australian market all the time.

    The 30-day rule says that if a local publisher wishes to produce a local edition of a book they must do it within 30 days of the foreign edition’s publication date. Otherwise book shops are free to import and sell the foreign edition.

    Also what Amber said. We are a population of 20 million but with distances to travel just as great as in the US. It makes EVERYTHING more expensive.

    You also said The fact is that I’ve very much enjoyed translations of books written in Russian, available only in trade paperback, here in the U.S., published by a U.S. publisher (I’m referring to the Night Watch series). For dedicated readers, a good book is a good book, and we will find a way to get it.

    The problem with that is that, in fact, very very very few foreign language books get translated into English for the US market. And those numbers are going down not up. So a good book may well be a good book but you’re unlikely to find more than a few that were originally in a non-English language unless you can read them in the original. I spent much of the huge Children’s book fair in Bologna in despair as book after amazing book was described to me only to discover that NONE of them had been or were going to be translated into English.

    Ted: Australia is cool, and different, and other, and I like reading stories that take place there. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed your Magic or Madness trilogy; indeed, much as I like New York, I really enjoyed the parts that took place in Australia more. I have trouble believing other U.S. readers feel differently.

    I’m glad you feel that way. (Truly! Thanks for the kind words.) Problem is there are many agents and editors in NYC who don’t. Remember that Aussie vampire book I talked about? It’s had trouble selling in the US market and the reason given is that it’s too Australian and wouldn’t work in an American market. I don’t agree but it can’t get past the gate keepers and that keeps on happening to many many many many Australian books. And when (I’m an optimist) it is published here odds are that edits (some of them substantial) will be made so it can work in the US market. It won’t be the same book as it is back home. I won’t read US editions of Australian (or English or Scottish etc) books for that very reason. (I was very lucky with my publishers for the trilogy. They did not make me take out or change a single Australianism. So the trilogy is exactly the same in the US and Oz editions.)

    Amber: Well put! Hear hear!

    You forgot Elizabeth Knox! How could you forget my favourite NZ writer? (Other than Margaret Mahey.)

  11. scott on #

    Ted said: The fact is that I’ve very much enjoyed translations of books written in Russian.

    But these books were published by American publishers who went to the Russian authors and bought a monopoly on US rights for that book. If they couldn’t have acquired these sole US (or perhaps World English) rights, they wouldn’t have spent the money to translate the book. So this is an argument for the kinds of “monopolies” you are arguing against.

    I think you’ve interpreted Justine’s (and Garth’s) position as one in which US and UK books won’t be published in Australia. But all they’re asking is that Australian publishers maintain their ability to negotiate for sole Aussie rights, something that US and UK publishers take for granted.

  12. C.B. James on #

    I just want to add that My Brilliant Career has at least one big fan here in California.

    I just read a British novel, Boy A, that had lots of idiomatic expressions and references to local places, habits etc. To be honest I could have used some annotations.

    Do you think that today’s authors should write with both the local and the world markets in mind? That may just be the reality they have to face to succeed.

  13. Garth Nix on #

    Ted Lemon, you’ve misunderstood what we’re talking about. In fact, I wonder if you even read my letter that Justine links to, which attempts to explain what is a reasonably complex issue.

    The problem is not that Australian authors cannot compete, it is that the publishing world works on the principle of territorial copyright. An American or a British publisher, and right now, an Australian publisher, can buy the rights for their own territory and invest in publishing an author with the security of knowing that other editions *of that book* will not come in and compete.

    What some people here have proposed is to unilaterally surrender the Australian copyright territory, so that any legal edition can be imported. While this would result in cheaper books in Australia, it would wreak havoc on Australian publishing and writing. It is a very simplistic, “baby with the bathwater” approach to getting cheaper books. We could have petrol as cheap as the USA too, if we wanted, but no one here is advocating that we junk the excise duty on fuel, because everyone understands that it is not that simple. I wish it were so with books.

    So this is not about UK and US books per se being sold in Australia — it is about US or UK *editions* that have an Australian counterpart. Just as British and American publishers and authors have the benefits of their own territorial copyright, we’d like to keep our own territorial copyright as well.

    To give you an example, take my own books. They are published in different editions in the USA, the UK and Australia. If we surrender our copyright territory, the US or the UK editions could be widely sold here by all retailers (not just bought by individuals from international online sellers). Because they operate on much greater economies of scale, it’s likely the British and American editions would be cheaper. They would force out my Australian editions, and I would end up in the position of being a very successful Australian author who is not published in Australia — because no one here could afford to invest in my books in the face of British and American imports — imports which face no threat themselves because the British and the Americans have their own secure copyright territories.

    (Before anyone brings this up, in my letter I comment on electronic publishing and Internet bookselling as well. In time, territorial copyright for books probably will disappear. But right now and for the immediate future, that is how publishing works worldwide for printed books, and there is no case for Australia to unilaterally surrender its opyright territory before the US and the UK does so.)

  14. Justine on #

    Garth: Thank you. Also what you said.

  15. Ted Lemon on #

    Garth, you are correct – I only read what Justine wrote. The web server where your article is stored isn’t responding. I did in fact miss what you meant by parallel publishing. And I agree that superficially, this seems like it makes a difference.

    However, I’m not convinced it really does. What it does is to change the default deal. Previously, an Australian publisher buying rights to publish in Australia was also buying the right not to have to compete with foreign publishers. Now, if the Australian publisher wants this second right, that has to be in the contract.

    I’m a little surprised that Australian book contracts aren’t already written like this. When I sold the DHCP Handbook, the contract Ralph and I signed with Macmillan was for worldwide publication rights, not just U.S. rights.

    So this changes the shape of the market a bit, but it’s not clear to me that it changes it in a bad way. If you can make a foreign sale, and that means your Australian reader can now enjoy your book for a better price, how is that a bad thing?

    If you can’t make a foreign sale initially, but your book gains a following that results in people wanting to import it overseas, isn’t that a good thing? Is it a problem, or an opportunity? Isn’t this good for the Australian publisher who took a chance on you?

    The book industry is going through the shredder right now because of electronic publishing. It’s not clear at all how the whole thing is going to fall out. If different books are being published now than were 20 years ago, it’s as likely to be because of this as because of free trade.

    The market you seem to be advocating is very inefficient, in ways that work really poorly for your customer, the reader, and also generally for you, the author.

    When Ralph and I did the DHCP Handbook, we wrote everything in MS Word (our only option). Then it went to copyedit, where they screwed up all my verb tenses. Then it went to the tech reviewer. Finally it came back to me, and if I made any changes, I didn’t see them until I got page proofs, at which point I would be charged for any changes over a certain percentage of the total word count.

    If I had sold this book to two different publishers, one in the U.S., and one in Australia, I would have had to go through this same process twice. By selling to a single publisher, I saved myself a lot of trouble, and of course this should have made the book cheaper for Australians, although I don’t know that it did.

    Going to full electronic publishing would make this whole process a lot simpler. It would completely change your publicity process. A lot of activities that currently sit under a single roof at the publishing house would be spread out more – printing, editing, publicity, etc.

    But I don’t see the traditional publishing houses going this way anytime soon. If you really want to publish through them, or if you think that the hopes of Australian writers as a whole rest in them, then your argument in favor of protection is probably right, at least for the next five to ten years.

    The bottom line is that I am a middle-level consumer of books (more than average, but less than some), and it is routine for me to go to the bookstore looking for something new to read and not find /anything/ I’m interested in. So to me this means that the market for /good/ books written in Australia exists here in the U.S., whether the particular publisher you talked to thinks it does or not. The question is whether Australian authors and/or publishers can figure out a way to tap it. The UK publishing industry certainly has.

  16. Ted Lemon on #

    Hrm, Scott, translating books from Russian to English in such a way that you are left with something worth reading is /hard/. And the publication rights that publisher has are on the translation, not just on the original Russian version. Once a good translation exists, it seems unlikely someone would attempt a second translation unless the first was /terrible/. So in practice, having rights on the translation would have been sufficient.

    In places where the cost of labor is cheap, like China, you do see unauthorized translations hitting the market at ridiculously low prices. This is a really good argument for higher wages in China. I don’t see how tariffs and import restrictions would help to make this happen, though.

  17. scott on #

    What it does is to change the default deal. Previously, an Australian publisher buying rights to publish in Australia was also buying the right not to have to compete with foreign publishers. Now, if the Australian publisher wants this second right, that has to be in the contract.

    I’m afraid you’re still in a muddle, Ted. The proposed law will make it IMPOSSIBLE to own Australian rights to a work. There will be no such thing as Australian rights; regardless of what the contract says, anyone can import.

    Note that it will still be possible to own US rights to a work, or UK rights, or, yes, world rights. But Australian rights will cease to exist as a legal possibility, regardless of what the contract says.

    If you don’t get this, you’re having a different conversation than we are. Not that it’s your fault. The proposed law is just so incredibly stupid that I think your brain just isn’t processing it.

    You seem to think this is Aussies asking for special rights, but this is more like Aussies asking to not start 10 points down in an away game against an opponent who gets to put more players on the field.

  18. Garth Nix on #


    I’m sorry to say that you’re still misunderstanding what we’re talking about. I’m going to make one more attempt to explain. Please do take in that I’m talking about how the publishing industry *actually* works on an international level — not how it should work or how you think it should work.

    >>Previously, an Australian publisher buying rights to >>publish in Australia was also buying the right not to have >>to compete with foreign publishers. Now, if the Australian >>publisher wants this second right, that has to be in the >>contract.

    The Australian publisher isn’t buying the right not to have to compete, because that right is enshrined in national and international law — it is the same right that US and UK publishers have in their own territories. If there was no copyright law to back it up, it would be impossible to police by contract, because there are too many possible third-party suppliers. How would you stop a Russian remainder merchant who has bought 5000 copies of an Indian English-language edition from dropping that into the Australian market? The author has no contract with them. The publisher has no contract with them. Even if the distributor they bought it from does say “don’t sell these in Australia” how will it be enforced?

    >>If you can make a foreign sale, and that means your >>Australian reader can now enjoy your book for a better price, >>how is that a bad thing?

    OK, say an Australian author sells US rights to a book. That’s great — but it’s a lot less great if that US edition is going to compete *only in Australia* with their Australian edition. If those US editions are able to come into Australia, as is the usual case for sales outside their prime territory, they will pay an export or price received royalty, not a full cover price royalty. So for that Australian author, copies of the US edition sold in their own country, will deliver a much lower royalty per copy — typically around 80% less than the usual domestic royalty. To add injury, the US editions on which the Australian author is receiving a much lower royalty will probably drive out the Australian editions, which will also hurt the Australian publisher.

    >>If I had sold this book to two different publishers, one in >>the U.S., and one in Australia, I would have had to go >>through this same process twice.

    This is unfortunately rather naive though to some degree it illustrates differences between trade and educational books. If you sell World rights it just gives the “top-level” publisher a share in rights that you could control and sell. The most effective way for an author to make a living is to split rights as much as possible. For example, if you sell world rights to a publisher (whether in the US, the UK or Australia) and they then sell other territories, they will keep at least 20% and possibly much more of the proceeds. They will also apply any advances from such rights sales against your original advance, so you won’t get the money until the book earns out domestically. In fact, you may never see that money from such rights deals if the book does not earn out domestically. Whereas if you, usually via an agent, sell the rights separately, you get a separate advance in each territory and proper royalties in each territory.

    If the publisher that has World rights doesn’t sell the rights, but instead distributes the book to sister companies in other territories, then the situation for the author is likely to be even worse. The book most likely will have far less or no marketing support in other countries, probably won’t be readily available, and again you’ll be earning “export” royalties outside the domestic territory.

    You also don’t seem to understand that we’re not talking about tariffs or import protections against foreign books. We just want the Australian publishing industry to continue to have the *same* conditions as the UK and the US publishing industry, where it is *possible* to separate out the Australian rights as a discrete territory.

    If it continues to be a separate territory then Australian authors have the opportunity to sell the rights for the book to be published and sold in their own country *and* sell the rights for it to be sold in the US or the UK. Just as American and British authors can and usually do sell the rights to their books separately.

    >>The question is whether Australian authors and/or >>publishers can figure out a way to tap it. The UK >>publishing industry certainly has.

    I don’t know what you’re talking about here. Very few UK-originated *editions* are sold in the USA, for the simple reason that we’ve been talking about all along — both countries maintain their territorial copyright. Plenty of British authors are published in the USA, of course, as are plenty of Australians. UK publishers would shout hallelujah and prance about singing in praise if the US allowed their editions in an open market, and US publishers would do likewise if they could get into the UK. At present, they are both fighting about the English-language market in Europe, where UK publishers often still try to get exclusive rights.

    What it all boils down to, and I’ll say it again one more time, is that for good or ill, world English-language publishing works on the basis of territorial copyright. There are problems with this on many levels, but it is the reality we have to work with. Australia surrendering its own territorial copyright when the US and the UK are keeping theirs, will greatly damage Australian publishers and authors, without delivering sufficient benefits to make up for this. Particularly as books could be made immediately cheaper here by removing the Goods and Services Tax upon them.

  19. Alina on #

    Off topic to the parallel importing- I can’t believe no one has mentioned John Marsden’s Tomorrow Series. It’s by a prolific Australian author and is fantastic.

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