Jul 14, 2009

Readers have nothing to fear from the Productivity Commission

“The country’s most articulate lobby” they were called yesterday: the array of writers aligned against deregulation of Australia’s $2.5b book industry. Really? asks Bernard Keane.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

“The country’s most articulate lobby” they were called yesterday: the array of writers aligned against deregulation of Australia’s $2.5b book industry.

Well they might be high-profile Australian writers but articulate? Depends what you mean, especially when you’re talking about the Productivity Commission, which this afternoon will release its recommendations on the removal of parallel importation restrictions.

Free Trial

Proudly annoying those in power since 2000.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

11 thoughts on “Readers have nothing to fear from the Productivity Commission

  1. Clare Carlin

    Copy of an email sent to B. Keane (NZ info added) today:

    Dear Bernard

    I am an emerging writer. You have ignored my place in the debate on territorial copyright. If we lose territorial copyright for Australia we will crush the ability of new and emerging authors to be supported by Australian publishers. In fifty years there won’t be many Australian authors. No authors = no books. It’s quite simple. What will consumers do then?

    To further explain this aspect I would like to direct you to the submission to the productivity commission by the very articulate Nick Earls who says it all better than I can. I have attached it to this email (so that you can read it in-context) but quote below:

    “Parallel imported copies undercutting the local edition could destroy the local market
    for that edition and send the book out of print. No publisher would order a local reprint
    of a book that could not be priced to beat an imported remainder copy.

    Both the author and the publishing company here – the company that had provided all
    the support to see the book through to its first publication – would suffer. This risk
    would be a serious disincentive towards Australian publishers publishing new
    Australian books, and unearthing new talent.

    Almost every Australian author who succeeds overseas succeeds here first. Either their
    book is published here and succeeds and overseas markets take notice, or they are
    picked up by a publisher or agent here who manages to secure international sales before
    local publication. Typically, Australian publishers build authors over a few books
    before success comes along. That takes faith, it takes commitment, it’s a long-term
    investment and requires a long-term view.

    Publishers will be a lot less likely to go through that process if the price of success is
    having the author’s backlist undermined by imported editions. They will be reticent to
    publish new authors. Risks will be higher, so advances will be lower. Fewer people will
    be able to earn a living as writers. Emerging Australian authors will be forced to try to
    start their careers by competing directly in New York and London at long range and
    without track records. This amounts to a distinct disadvantage.”

    You also talk about the New Zealand industry – Nick has much to say about that:

    “One English-speaking country that has allowed parallel imports for ten years in New
    Zealand, and it is instructive to see how New Zealand publishing is faring.

    NZ Trade and Enterprise’s 2004 report ‘New Zealand Book Publishing: Industry
    Development Issues’ stated that ‘New Zealand publishers face an inherent problem in
    that the domestic market is swamped by imports.’ Children’s publishing, while
    historically seen as a strength, was seen as threatened, with ‘dumping of children’s
    books’ listed by NZ publishers as one of the three most pressing issues they face.

    While NZ educational publishers tend to fare better than others, due to the need for NZspecific
    material for NZ schools, the report says that ‘Trade publishing, i.e. literature
    and other general non-fiction, are the poor relation to education … Competition in the
    New Zealand market from imported books is fierce. Consequently margins are low,
    print runs are short and rapid remaindering is endemic. The reliable sellers are in areas
    such as the coffee table books of landscape photos and books on rugby, where there is
    no direct foreign competition.’ To that might now be added books of Maori tattoos, but
    any publishing industry that can achieve sales success only with an extremely narrow
    range of books that have no export potential is in crisis, both financially and culturally.

    New Zealand’s publishing industry has changed dramatically since parallel imports
    have been allowed. Its capacity to produce great novelists of the calibre of those it has
    produced in the past seems to be seriously under threat. Many of us can name a number
    of great New Zealand writers. I don’t know anyone who can name a New Zealand
    author under fifty. New Zealand talent is no longer coming through in the way it once
    was. I have no doubt that it exists, but it now exists in an atmosphere that denies it the
    opportunities it needs to flourish.

    This is a risk we cannot afford to take here.”

    Your comments in Crikey were mocking, nasty. You used small parts of highly intelligent comments out of context. I have cancelled my Crikey subscription and will donate the remainder of my subscription fee to the State Library of Victoria.

    Clare Carlin

  2. meski

    Clare you can’t take mocking or nasty comments, and you write? I would have thought that reviewers were far worse than anything Bernard threw up today.

    We live and compete in a global market, all of us. You have to work on that basis, whether you produce books, software, or oranges. If you want protection for your output, why should other Australians that produce other items not get similar protection?

  3. Clare Carlin

    Me Ski

    Interesting comment, thank you. I can take it… I just can’t believe Bernard’s lack of support for Australian writers.

    As you obviously know if PIRs were dropped we would not be competing equally. The US and UK – our biggest English language markets- both enjoy the protections we are about to have ripped away.

    We may live in a global market but we do not live in a free market. I am willing to have the conversation about open markets when they really are… until then yes, I agree, protectionism is sometimes necessary.

  4. Bob the builder

    Looks like Tim Wilson and Bob Carr have been chatting.

  5. Michael James

    Here is a re-post from Comments on my article today:

    To Jackie French (1.25pm): I’m on your side! But your point is absolutely correct and this (below) was my second para which, for whatever reasons, was edited out by Crikey. Do you note that Bernard K never mentions this issue? I might be more amenable to a true open and free market in the English speaking markets if the two biggest, UK and USA, did not have similar restrictions.

    “Amongst several key points that some participants, letter writers and bloggers fail to grasp is that Australian authors do not receive any royalties on their books which are remaindered in the US or UK, and such books could be dumped on the Australian market at considerably cheaper prices because the UK/USA publisher has written them off (and the author’s standard contract allows/insists on this condition). American and British authors are protected against such action in their home markets.”

    So I don’t think Claire or Jackie F are whingeing about their books being remaindered and pulped. But if the remainders are sold back in Oz (or anywhere) without a dime of royalty paid to the authors, I believe they have a valid complaint. Neither Bob Carr, Allan Fels, Dymocks or BK have adequately addressed this issue.

  6. meski

    But the rest of us don’t have PIRs or protectionism. If you want to lean on publishers (worldwide) go for eBooks, and sell them direct. No pulping, remaindering, or all that waste. You ‘publish’ as many books as are needed.

  7. Bernard Keane

    What issue do I never mention?

    If it’s that the US and the UK have import restrictions, so what? Just because other countries shackle themselves with protectionism, doesn’t mean we should – especially protectionism where 60% of the benefit actually goes to foreigners as is the case here.

  8. Scott Grant

    So when are we going to get DVD region coding banned?

  9. Michael James

    Bernard (5.31pm). Most countries, certainly the USA, have anti-dumping laws to prevent anti-competitive practices. The PIR is really an anti-dumping law. The big difference between anti-dumping laws for most manufactured goods and the PIR/books is that the manufacturer (and factory workers etc) are still getting paid. With books, the printer still got paid but the author and Australian publisher are not getting anything.

  10. Charles Coulton

    Reading Tim’s article, there seems to be some deliberately obscurationist points of view he has taken on the data. For instance, there are many years (eg: between dec01 and mar 03) which show absolutely no investment in the NZ industry, yet the trend line he has drawn still goes up?? The data may be missing, but it also may represent years of running down capital and underinvestment. The printing business is huge and books are only a very small fraction of it in dollar terms – think of all the pamphlets you receive in the mail, all the billboards, all the other bits of paper flying around our economy, yet his look is at the printing business as a whole and not the books industry, the attempted focus of his argument

    A simple reference check will show that the export data he refers to is mostly not books, but all printed material; indeed his reference actually clearly states that ‘selecting only the subclasses that included books and booklets reduces the 2002 figure to 19.5 million’ – a very clear difference to the $57 million stated in his essay! So are we talking about t-shirts and printed globes being covered under these restrictions as well?? I certainly think not.

    Personally, although I would classify myself mostly ‘liberal’ I never trust anything that the IPA puts out, it usually demands a much closer look: they are about pushing a certain point of view, and, like all thinktanks, should not be trusted to present a balanced (or even reasonable) argument.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details