There’s been a book’s worth of words expended on discussion of the imminent decision by the Productivity Commission on parallel-importation of books into Australia.

So this particular book-buying scientific geek decided to do what scientific geeks tend to do: check the actual real-world data.

The first table lists the top ten books according to sales statistics (from The SMH 11 July 2009). This is the “indie” list because the best seller list is wall-to-wall Stephenie Meyer and I was not going to waste my time on that! Only two (as it happens the top two) in the list are Australian-published Australian authors:

This next table shows the actual prices as found in the last 48 hours in the main book chains in Australia, three smaller independent book stores (in Brisbane CBD*) and the two main online suppliers, Amazon-USA and Book Depository (UK).

For the latter two the current RBA exchange rate was used and the shipping and per-order charge is added as shown (but these are still likely to be lower than actual final charges, see later):

Notes to Table:. a) All prices are AUD; b) Book details as per Table 1A; c) Borders discount price at 3-for-2 (all 3 at same label price) d) Myers special 35% discount e) Amazon includes shipping charge; “solo” indicates additional US$4.99 per shipment charge (not applied to multiple book purchase ie. “batch”); f) colour code: bright-green=best price, light-green=next best price, purple=worst price.

The first claim about online always being the cheapest is rarely true.

Breath by Tim Winton was $16.22 at Myer and $15.76 from Book Depository (BD). However, anyone who has made a credit card purchase requiring foreign exchange knows their credit card company/bank is not going to give them the best Forex rate, and will usually levy a transaction fee to boot.

Second, recently published Australian authors are not always available outside Australia, and sure enough Chris Tsiolkos’s The Slap is not available from either source: BD does not have it while Amazon only has the hardback at A$68 (incl.shipping) although you can pre-order the paperback at A$25.40 (or A$31.74 if bought singly) apparently for delivery in 2010!

Meanwhile, in Australia, most book stores have it for $32.95, although Borders (ANZ stores are now owned by A&R though currently operate independently) actually have it at $35.99 (winning the wooden spoon award, see the above table).

The cheapest place to get it? I bought it from Myer about six weeks ago when they had it discounted 35% for $21.40! They still had it at this price this weekend.

The lesson is to hunt around and you can usually get Australian authors at reasonable prices. If Myer stock it they would usually be the cheapest. I was told they have their Top 10 more or less permanently discounted.

There is a separate discussion to be had on why they do this since independent bookstores — the ones most hurt by this discounting — are not their competitors, and books must represent 0.01% of Myer’s turnover. Are they not happy unless trying to kill all independent retailing in Australia as a matter of policy?

Interestingly, while the small independents never had the absolutely cheapest, it was the majors who had all of the most expensive prices. Book buyers, do not assume the big chains are cheaper.

For the other eight books on this list, even without the above caveats on the actual final cost of online purchases (more below) five were technically cheaper online-overseas though only three by a significant margin (#7, 9, 10). And the three from Amazon (#5, 9, 10) need to be purchased in a batch, not singly, to achieve the savings. Most likely several of these eight books are on the open market (as Garth Nix pointed out in the Lateline debate) and therefore other factors, not the parallel import laws, account for their higher price.

As a last geeky point about this top ten list, I note that the only book on the list I consider to be brain-food (#10) is the most expensive!

The bottom line is that the book market seems reasonably competitive in Australia and if you hunt around — with a tad of patience — you’ll find a good price without buying 10,000 kms away and crossing your fingers re your credit card. But speaking of long-distance purchasing, the below table shows a real life selection of books I am in the process of buying — admittedly a bit specialist but not obscure.

The oldest is 1989 but most were first published less than four years ago. Most of these books are not available in local stores but the few that were (see “local” column in the below table) show the rather wild price differences even within Australia. None of these books are subject to parallel importation restrictions.

Notes to table: a). All prices are AUD; b). NA, Not available. c) Dymocks Online, not including postage which is complicated [eg. $10.50 for 3 or more books, to Qld]

The real shocker is the difference between A&R (online prices incl. $2 postage) and either Amazon or BD. Almost an extra $300/78% more than Amazon and $250/83% more than BD. My experience is that Dymocks*** would give results comparable to A&R but they and Borders (online) do not stock most of these books.

But BD enthusiasts (or any lazy bloggers** that can always find a cheaper price on the web) there is a mere $8.60 between Amazon-US and BD on this unselected set of 10 books. As a regular buyer (in batch purchases such as Table 2) I can attest that these Amazon prices**** are real. Regrettably I can also disclose that I do not own any shares in Amazon.

Obviously these markups in Australian retail prices of non-Australian books is the huge price disparity everyone thinks of, BUT it has absolutely nothing to do with the argument over the parallel importation laws, which in my opinion should be retained — at the very least until the major English-language markets in the UK and USA agree to abolish their own restrictions.

Anyone (Bob Carr, Allan Fels?) who thinks that books by Australian authors imported by the big book sellers from the USA or UK would be cheaper over the longer term would have to explain the massive disparity shown in Table 2.

Unless they are in a parallel universe where the usual retailing laws do not apply.

*Yes, for most Crikey readers, your CBD is bigger than my CBD so you should have an even bigger selection of retailers and better price competition, therefore my figures are a worst-case scenario.

** Only Amazon direct prices are used here because other Sellers hosted by Amazon incur higher postage and additional per-order charges for invariably single-book orders. To those rabid bloggers who always believe they find better online prices, please forward documentary evidence to [email protected], including proof of payment and actual delivery within Australia (not just a webpage from

***I also dispute the claim made repeatedly by Don Grover, CEO of Dymocks, that their Hong Kong stores/customers benefit from the lack of regulation. Dymocks HK prices are not online but my strong recollection from many hours spent in their HK stores over the years, and many purchases (mostly books about HK not widely available elsewhere), is that his statement is hogwash.

****Note that Amazon (or BD?) does not include Australian GST and this gives them an unfair advantage — and as has been pointed out, the Australian government could readily insist on Amazon levying the tax because the American company already does it for other countries and some US states.

Michael James is an Australian research scientist. These are the author’s personal opinions and do not represent the views of any organisation or institution with which he is affiliated.