Parallel import restrictions: convince me

I’d like to be able to join the chorus of outrage about the Productivity Commision’s report on copyright restrictions on parallel importation of books.

Actually, I don’t really want to, but I feel bad that I don’t, because all the people complaining about it are the people I think of as being on my side of the argument about most things. But the arguments against dropping the import restrictions seem to me to be very “we’ll all be rooned, said Hanrahan”, with a nasty dose of snobbery thrown in. (People sneering at supermarket novels, etc, but isn’t one of the supposed benefits of PIR that supermarket readers are cross-subsidising more worthwhile things, so where do you get off sneering at them.)

Since this seems to be an argumentative week around here anyway, convince me.

Some disclaimers/notes:

Several of my close friends and many of my acquaintances are published Australian authors. If you ask me, the current system has rewarded none of them anywhere near enough for their labours. Dropping parallel importation might make it worse, but I honestly would like to know how much worse it could get when being an author is very often de facto unpaid work anyway.

As far as I’m aware, the parallel importation restrictions have their origins in an attempt to protect British publishers, not Australian writers or readers. That the Australian publishing industry has gotten used to the protection they afford doesn’t necessarily make them a good way to subsidise the arts. And it’s also still subsidising British publishers, for no good reason that I can see.

Books have got steadily more expensive, out of line with inflation, over my lifetime: as a teenager I used to buy new books every week. As an adult, I buy new books for presents, and very occasionally buy them for myself. I earn quite a bit more money now than I did then. I don’t think a market where new books are luxury items is a sign of a healthy literary culture.

Parallel importation already exists: it’s called Amazon.

15 responses to “Parallel import restrictions: convince me

  1. Mike, I can give you my side of the argument (as an Australian children’s author). It may not change your mind but it’ll show you why we authors feel so passionate about the issue.
    Yes, I only get 10% of RRP ( if I’m lucky) while the big booksellers demand 50%+. Yes, we authors get a bum deal all the way.
    But we’ll be even worse off when publishers cut back on their support and nurturing of emergent and developing writers because of massive cut-backs.
    My biggest concern is the changes that will happen to Australian authored children’s books if editions published in the US are dumped here in Aust. At present they’re not allowed. I’ve seen examples of Australian picture books and children’s novels changed to suit North American tastes – and that includes spelling, ideas, humour and ethics. The worse sin of all is when they dumb down a book; taking away the subtly until it is bland and lollypop sweet.
    This push by the free-market profiteers is not about cheaper books otherwise why do some of the larger booksellers covered up the RRP on a book and sell it for more? I think it’s all about greed – and that’s not from the authors. As you know we live on the smell of an oily rag and a few extra writing workshops in schools. And even that is drying up. I’d still rather be a writer but boy, it doesn’t feel good to have our work rights taken away. Bit like ‘Workchoices’ revisted actually!

  2. Mike – yes, books are getting steadily more expensive. One of the reasons is that booksellers and chain stores (the very businesses which make up the badly named Coalition for Cheaper Books) are taking bigger and bigger cuts. When you buy a book at RRP, the bookseller gets 50%. The author is lucky if s/he gets 10%. Yet Dymocks routinely sells the books at a couple of dollars ABOVE the rrp. So their 50% becomes 60%. If they are truly wanting books to be cheaper, why sell them at above rrp now?
    Has the virtual duopoly of Coles and Woolworths resulted in cheaper grocery prices? No – it hasn’t. And yet the Productivity Commission wants to place the book industry at their mercy. They already control food, alchohol and fuel prices. Now we want them to control the book industry as well.
    The removal of PIRs in New Zealand some years ago has decimated their book industry and has NOT resulted in cheaper books there. US and UK Publishers are already eyeing off the Australia as a huge growth market should the commission’s recommendations be enacted.
    I’m sorry you’ve detected snobbery in the arguments. To me, for me, this is not about supermarket novels. When we talk about stopping a flood of inferior books, we are talking about dumbed down copies of good quality books, or cheaply produced copies. Think of the badly produced DVDs available in Bali, complete with blurred credits or out of sync audio. Should we allow those in to compete against properly produced DVDs? This is the equivalent to what could happen with books.
    Yes, authors are concerned about diminished earnings (our incomes are generally pitifully low), but the issue is bigger than that. This is about ensuring that we have a vibrant industry publishing Australian books, alongside books from around the world.

  3. Thanks for the responses.

    Actually the comment that pinged my snobbery-radar was about Bratz novelisations, and in the context of the possibility for dumping cheap US editions of kid’s books on our market, it seems less snobbish.

    That prospect alone seems like a good argument for keeping some form of PIR: if the US edition of an Australian book is lower quality, and will return less money to the author, then we’ve got every right to block it.

    Ok, I think I’m happier to join the outraged mob now. Especially if we’re fighting Dymocks. Pass me a pitchfork.

  4. Haha, pitchfork coming your way! Pass on the information to all your friends – if they have children they will be especially ill-at-ease about this threat to the Aussie publication industry. If they wanted to only increase the price of books by overseas authors imported into this country I’d see no problems. But there’s something called a ‘Free Trade Agreement’ – that ain’t so fair for Australians.

  5. Mike – will the promise of having cheaper books convince you? Because that is what has convinced many thousands of Australians.
    Problem is, there is NO GUARANTEE they will be cheaper!
    For books to be cheaper, we have to trust that the big retailers will pass on their savings. How do we trust them when we know many already mark up the recommended retail price on so many of their books? They could make books cheaper NOW, if they wanted to.

    Incase you need reminding, the stores we are talking about are Dymocks, COLES, KMART, BIGW, TARGET, WOOLWORTHS.
    Hmmmm, do those names inspire trust in you?

    The commission has agreed that we cannot trust the retailers to be altruistic. They have said it themselves in their report. But they still want to let the market have its way – because that’s what the free market is all about.

    SO why aren’t thousands of Australians being told that this is NOT about cheaper books. It is about free market, and the ‘reallocation of resources’ – it is about creating the kind of ‘free market’ that has got the world into the state it’s currently in.

    As far as the Commission is concerned, if thousands of jobs are lost, if we lose some cultural content in our books, if Australia no longer offers hope to those who want to enter the creative industry of publishing – so be it.
    And if in spite of all this, book prices don’t drop – so be it.

    If we took the “cheaper books” promise out of this equation, I wonder how much support the public would offer then?

  6. Personally, even after reading the comments, I agree with your point of view in the OP. Bob Carr has been lobbying for the removal of the import protections: one argument he made that I found quite compelling was that similar protections have already been stripped away in NZ without sending the local publishing industry to the wall.

    I can see why the proposed change makes local press, agents and authors extra nervous and know a few myself. But I’m already buying most of my books from Amazon. Not only that, I’m also happy to trust my own judgement as far as edifying myself with what comes to hand is concerned, regardless of its certified Australian cultural origin, and I’m sceptical of those who claim that to do otherwise is extra important.

    Just as you say above, I’d rather books were cheaper so that I could buy, and read, more of them.

  7. Bob – two comments.
    1 – ask the local publishing industry in NZ what state their industry is in. They will tell you it’s in Big Trouble. Only Mr Carr says they are not.
    2. – Book prices have NOT come down in NZ.

  8. Tom – Bob Carr has a vested interest in saying htis. He is on the board of Dymocks. that’s hwyhe’s lobbying so hard. But unfortuantely, the book industry in NZ HAS been diminished by their scrapping of PIRs. Submissions to our Productivity Commission from NEw Zealnders support this.
    I’d like cheaper books, too – but the Productivity Commission admits there is no proof that books will become cheaper by scrapping PIRs and has even stated that books may not be cheaper.
    Its hould also be noted that the US and UK governments have no intention of scrapping their own similar restrictions? ie – we will benefit them but they won’t benefit us. There have been lots of comments from US and UK commentators who think our govt is hilarious for even considering open up the market to them.

  9. Hmm – perhaps I need to proofread for typos before I hit submit. My apologies.

  10. Fair enough – Bob’s a lying scumbag.

    And just as in every other government move that transfers a wad of cash to the private sector without requiring a commitment (cf private health insurance rebate seeing no drop in premiums after one year), the benefits won’t necessarily be passed on.

    But that just puts me back in the position of buying books from Amazon.

  11. Tom – I ended up buying a number of books on-line recently too, from Booktopia. This was because on my previous bookshop visit, I purchased four children’s books, and paid almost $9 ABOVE recommended retail price for the combined total.
    If booksellers insist on adding a dollar or two (sometimes more!) to recommended retail price, then they are sending customers on-line!
    I’m happy to pay recommended price – that way, authors get their fair share. But paying higher, knowing the seller takes every cent – no way.

  12. I’ve always been slightly suspicious of Bob Carr’s bookishness – this confirms it.

    I do think the pro-PIR side should go easy on the rhetoric making this an issue about the “free market.” To put it mildly, it’s drawing a very long bow indeed to compare territorial copyright regulation with the GFC, and I think turning the issue into a left-v-right ideological battle is a guaranteed way to lose the argument, if only because people will turn away in boredom.

    All publishing in capitalist economic systems – including the Australian status quo – is a more-or-less free market – free, with such regulation as is provided by local copyright laws. Removing PIRs would shift the rules somewhat (in all likelihood, in favour of the big booksellers and overseas publishers) but it’s not total deregulation.

    Exposing the self-interest of the “cheaper books” lobbyists, and pointing to the fact that the two nations whose publishing industries have the most to gain by this have no intention of dropping their PIRs, seems to me to be the way to go.

  13. – new article by an IPA free market wonk that essentially repeats Carr’s claims.

    It’s true actually – the advocates against PIRs are leading their argument with “cheaper books for all” (which really does grab my attention) but when they come down to the details, they back away sharply from that claim:

    “Book prices may not collapse as much”

    And then a deafening silence on the actual prices of books in NZ.

    I still think the shopfront bookseller is going further to the fringes in the long run.

  14. Most independent bookstores in Sydney have already closed, or been taken over by major chains.

    The ones that survive – Gleebooks, for example – are doing so in part by acting as community centres for the literary end of the market (and providing employment, and staff discounts, to part of that population). I can’t see any reason why they shouldn’t go on forever, but I don’t think that’s enough.

    Two things I’d like to see would be: print-on-demand shopfronts – basically a good cafe with an extension of the back-catalogue POD services that Faber and other publishers are already providing. No stock, just a really good printer.

    And the equivalent of JB hi-fi in the books market – a fast, cheap, loud, messy, un-genteel chain of stores selling stuff to students and hipsters and everyone else who can stand the noise. If JB can do it for CDs and DVDs, someone can do it for print.

  15. It will be evident from the above that I’m a bookstore fetishist: I shop on Amazon, but I’ll always be a sucker for a physical environment that smells like bookbinder’s glue.

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