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Dymocks: throwing the book at parallel importing

The economist John Maynard Keynes once explained that the free market rested on “the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone”.

The book chain Dymocks might not be wicked but there’s something a little coy about its current campaign for the parallel importation of books into Australia. Parallel importation would allow booksellers to import overseas editions, irrespective of whether they’d already been published in Australia. It’s a measure resisted by most authors and all Australian publishers, who fear that exposure to open market will wipe out the local industry. Interestingly, parallel importation’s also opposed  — and for similar reasons  — by the Australian Booksellers Association as well as by the majority of its individual members.

Dymocks presumably calculates that its size will provide a competitive advantage when it comes to dumping discounted or remaindered overseas books on the Australian market. But that’s not the kind of argument that carries much public weight. So when former NSW Premier Bob Carr writes on parallel importation for the Oz, he doesn’t say: look, I’m on the board of Dymocks, and this proposal will make me and my mates a lot of money. Instead, he explains that Adam Smith’s invisible hand, protector of readers the world over, will rest its sainted palm on working class kids and transform them into lovers of literature.

Now in the midst of a GFC, most people feel less than confident about entrusting the cultural development of their children to the same free market that just destroyed their retirement, and so despite the best efforts of Dymocks and Mr Carr, there’s been little public enthusiasm for parallel importation: of the 268 submissions received by the Productivity Commission, some 260 opposed the idea.

Hence Dymocks’ latest wheeze. If you are a member what Dymocks calls its Booklover’s Loyalty Program, you would have recently received an email explaining: “We need your help to bring you cheaper books.”

Goodness, you might say. How do I get those cheaper books?

The Australian Government, through the Productivity Commission, is reviewing the restrictive laws that unnecessarily inflate the price of books. The current laws stop Australian Booksellers importing books other than through the Australian subsidiaries or agents of overseas publishers. This may sound reasonable but it prevents copyright-protected books from being imported from the most competitive market, usually the United States or the UK, whichever is the cheapest when ordering. The current law stops us buying books at the lowest price to put in our stores for you to buy. […]

Dymocks and the Coalition for Cheaper Books believe Australian booklovers deserve better. Dymocks believes that lower prices will enable more Australians to read more and as a consequence Australian literacy levels will improve. Dymocks believes that the Australian book industry should be driven by the Australian book buyer and not the local subsidiaries and agents of overseas publishers.”

The email concludes by suggesting that, if booklovers don’t want greedy foreigners preventing dinkum firms like Dymocks from educating Aussie battlers, they should sign up on a petition in support of the Coalition for Cheaper Books.

And who, pray tell, is in this coalition? Well, naturally it’s an alliance of firms long known for their association with fine writing … K-Mart, Target and Big W (no, really!).

PR insiders call the creation of phony grass roots campaign “astroturfing” — it’s the technique that led Philip Morris to fund the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (where “sound science” was defined as anything that proved the healthful effects of tobacco). One wonders how many Booklovers signed up on a Loyalty Program thinking they’d be used to promote the business interests of K-Mart.

It might be appropriate to mention here that it’s far from certain parallel importation would actually reduce prices. Henry Rosenbloom, from the small publisher Scribe, argues convincingly that it wouldn’t, while the draft produced by the Productivity Commission itself acknowledges substantial uncertainty on the question.

To be fair, Dymocks might protest that its opponents have equally pecuniary motives for defending the status quo. Books are simultaneously artifacts of culture and saleable commodities, which means aesthetics and economics invariably get hopelessly tangled. But you can oppose a free market in publishing without signing on to every jot and tittle of the current arrangements.

Indeed, instead of these tired debates about parallel importation, it would be nice to hear some new arguments about how to foster literary culture. Last week, Scotland’s Sunday Herald – like the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Independent on Sunday and the Daily Telegraph before it – abolished its book section. The steady erosion of literary journalism is merely one indication of the difficult environment literary publishing faces in the years to come. It’s great that we’re going to get super fast broadband but, in the twenty-first century, Gutenberg’s invention could also do with some love.

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