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Jul 15, 2009

Shane Maloney: I am a leech on my readers

If the Productivity Commission's recommendations on parallel book imports are implemented, it would be an act of sheer vandalism on an otherwise healthy industry, writes author Shane Maloney.

Last January, I went into a bookshop in Queenscliff and found multiple copies of several of my novels on the shelves. They were American hardback editions of books. At $26, they were a steal. Literally.

The books were remainders, probably bought for next to nothing. The bookseller stood to make a considerable margin. I stood to earn nothing, since no royalties were payable. My Australian publisher stood to lose a sale.

The bookshop was acting contrary to the current parrallel import regime. But the Productivity Commission has just recommended that exactly this kind of dumping onto the Australian book market be allowed.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m not in the wrong line of work. The Australian says I am a leech on my readers. Bob Carr reckons that little kiddies in Penrith are illiterate because of my unbridled greed. Dymocks, Target, Woolworths and Coles think it would be best for everybody if I worked for nothing. According to the Productivity Commission, I should be stripped of my property rights, given a taxpayer-funded grant and forget about trying to build an international readership.

Writing a novel is an act of hope. You hope it is good. You hope it will be published. You hope critics will like it and people will read it. You even dare to hope you might make a little bit of money from it. You hope your publisher might make a bit of money so they’ll want to publish the next one. So even in the nutty slab of ideological boilerplate released yesterday by the Productivity Commission, I cannot help but look for a sliver of hope.

I certainly do not hope PC’s recommendations are implemented. That would be sheer vandalism, the infliction of injury on a healthy industry without heed to the possible consequences. But I do hope that the government sees this as an opportunity to declare its support for our writers and publisher and bookprinters and independent booksellers who have all done the hard yard to make our story so successful.

Last time these proposals went to parliament, they were opposed by Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner. Under the current arrangements, Australian publishing has flourished. If there are new and compelling reasons to kick it in the guts, they have not been persuasively argued in the Productivity Commission report.

The ball is now in the government’s court. I hope it has the good sense to sort fact from fiction, possibly even undertake a proper study of the Australian publishing industry, one informed by more reliable data and rigorous analysis than employed by the Productivity Commission.

In the meantime, I’m thinking about getting into the fantasy genre. I’ve got an idea for a story set in an imaginary world in which a band of selfless superheroes known as the Coalition for Cheaper Books rescue Australian readers from the greed and tyrany of local authors, publishers, booksellers and printers by using a magical talisman called the Hidden Hand.

I’m sure it’ll find a ready market. Some people will believe anything.

Shane Maloney is authour of the Murray Whelan series.

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31 thoughts on “Shane Maloney: I am a leech on my readers

  1. Jennifer Dillon

    Shane

    I have a Plan B – maybe all your readers and those lovers of Australian literature of all genres could exercise some self-discipline and, in the event that government does not put these proposals where they belong, just buy the Australian version (with Royalties flowing) from a good old fashioned Australian owned bookshop, regardless of whether its $10 or whatever more expensive!!

    And Shane, its been a bloody long time since a Murray Whelan novel came out. I’m still hanging and I’m prepared to pay pretty much anything…

    Kind regards
    Jennifer Dillon

  2. Grahame Cox

    Shane,

    Given Murray Whelan’s working knowledge of politics, you would be intimately aware of the treacherous and venal thread that runs through the Labor movement. Just ask the ex-singer of Midnight Oil.

    Love your work,

    Grahame Cox

  3. Richard Jacobs

    The Productivity Commission is the Federal Government department tasked with protecting Australians from those able to rig the market. It listened to book cartel apologists before coming up with its findings. It is now crying foul on behalf of all Australians. If the Productivity Commission is wrong and the book cartel are not rigging the market and ripping us off, then surely Shane and all the other cartel apologists have nothing to fear from competition.

    The productivity commission correctly notes there are far better, cheaper and more efficient ways (such as direct payments) for Australian taxpayers to increase Australian authors and publishers incomes, if that is to be a national objective, than disadvantaging all book purchasers by artificially rigging the market for the benefit of a minority, but highly vocal, cartel. Naturally if you are a cartel, rather than a consumer, hidden rigging of the market is the preferred option.

    If the book cartel can keep up their constant misinformation barrage then Kevin07 will probably again go to water and announce what the car manufacturers got when the productivity commission tried to remove car manufacturer’s snouts from the trough.

    An “enquiry” at which the productivity commission was prevented from making any submission and whose terms of referance were limited only to what was best for the car industry. No pesky referance to what was in Australia’s best interests or to Productivity Commission research. Result – a $A14bn free hand out to US creditors of bankrupt US car companies courtesy of you and me, despite Productivity Commission studies showing such handouts as a costly waste of time and money, causing net job losses overall, and despite spin to the contrary, incapable of producing a “green” car industry.

    If it was wrong for cardboard box billionaires to run a cartel, why is it right for book trade insiders?

  4. Michael James

    Excellent perspective.
    If Rudd, Swan and Tanner originally opposed these actions one wonders why their government created this commission in the first place (I know, Bob Carr, Allan Fels,…). It seems to be the ultimate in economic rationalism, topped by creation of a new government-controlled subsidy to undue some of the damage (“cultural externalities”) that they admit the abolition will wring. I think they must have been reading too much Lewis Carroll.

    Shane (1.19pm). If you read some of the comments to my article in yesterday’s Crikey, you will weep. Some will sell out Austalian authors, bookshops and publishers for as little as 46 cents! (I am being a bit facetious here but….). Alas your Plan B is doomed, but look at my table and see that the three independent bookstores were surprisingly competitive, and were never the most expensive.

  5. alison croggon

    “Book cartel”? Authors now rip-off merchants on the scale of Richard Pratt? Jesus wept…

    What bothers me most about the debate, aside from the contempt in which some people seem to hold writers, is the disinformation that is being bandied about. For example: if the market is “artificially rigged” by PIRs, the same thing is happening in the UK and the US. These countries are lauded by the Commission as Meccas of cheap books. Yet their authors have Territorial Copyright, and what is more, the authorities have no intention of dropping them. Which begs a really big question – if Australian books do cost more (which is highly arguable – the consensus, even from the Commission, seems to be that some books are cheaper, some more expensive) how come they say it’s due to PIRs? The Commission doesn’t offer any evidence that is the case: they just say it must be so. Yet if it were, the same “upward pressures” would apply in the UK and the US, surely? If not, why not? Perhaps if they think books ought to be cheaper, they are looking at the wrong issue. Certainly not a question addressed in the report, and one I would like to see answered.

  6. David Hand

    I am ignorant of the finer points of the book publishing industry. What I don’t understand from this story is how an American publisher can sell a novel by an Australian author without paying a royalty to the author.

  7. Kieran Crichton

    Welcome to the world many musicians live in. You may well produce fine art, but you had best do it on your own time while performing a valuable service to society. I’ve yet to figure out what such service might be, but I suspect the MP-as-novelist look went out with Disraeli.

  8. Jack Robertson

    I may be wrong, but I’ll hazard the answer is something like this, David:

    Shane Maloney voluntarily signed a contract that incorporated a remainder mechanism that, when applied, meant that Shane was no longer entitled to royalties. At some point his US publisher on-sold the surplus stock from the print runs – that is, over-published books that no-one in America was prepared to buy, or not sufficiently briskly – to a remainder warehouse, who then punted it to that Australian retailer (busting PIR’s). Or something like that.

    Stop me anytime I’m wrong, Shane. I’m keen to learn about your industry.

    When signing his original contracts with the US publisher Shane and his agent presumably failed to give sufficient aforethought to downstream contractual ramifications of a too-ambitious production run (maybe their clarity of sight was blinded by the Yankee bucks), maybe the Yanks made ’em an offer dey couldn’t refuse…maybe Shane thinks he’s such a shithot deathless prose merchant that the Yank readers couldn’t possibly fail to recognise his incredible Cultural Significance And General Brilliant Elmore-ness and would line up in droves to buy every last copy going. As he says, that’s the hope…and in a perfect world, Shane…your upcoming fantasy one, say.

    Alas, they just did not…as is the case with the vast majority of hard copy novels, the hard copy industry ran off more dead trees than readers wanted to buy. It’s a pity, and it’s doubtless disappointing for Shane, but no-one’s forced to be a writer and no-one is forced to sign any contract, agree to any remainder provision, etc. The Yanks are red-hot ruthless on remaindering but that’s the game you choose to play when you set out to ‘build an international readership’.

    Stop me any time I’m wrong, Shane. I’m keen to learn more about ‘how publishing works’. Mate. Thanks, by the way, for ignoring me on the other thread after sneering and then running away. Alas – this is the internet, Shane: it’s not like your lob-from-the-lofty-heights Tweedy Biz. You pick a fight in words in this joint, you can’t just withdraw and maintain a lofty aloof silence like Timbo up on his fishing boat when some of us punch back, resolutely unimpressed by your six ripper Whelan yarns. You’re a fine novelist, a ripper, but bullshit from even Shakespeare would still smell as sweet, Shane, and you’re talking bullshit in this post…’leech’ indeed – what a strawman whine…ah, how I love the internet…brave new interactive worlds…etc etc…)

    Look, all joyously fun Dead Tree Man stoush-baiting aside, Shane, you – our book writers – need to get a damned grip on your stupendously over-inflated senses of mercantile exceptionalism, workplace entitlement and Grand Cultural Importance. You’re not the only bastard small biz’s in Australia who work hard for f**k-all or at best uncertain return. You authors are not the only bastards in Australia who have had to adapt their industry to globalisation. (You’re about the last bastards among us the PC has come a-door-knockin’.) You’re not the only IP bastards in Australia who are having to cope with the erosion of market segregation and massive changes in the remuneration and business models brought on by the digitalisation of words. Chatted to any journo’s lately?

    You’re also not the only bastards in Australia who tell ‘our’ stories, or contribute to ‘our’ vibrant – *coughs* – literary conversation, or write, or read, or Make Benefit For The Glorious Culture of Oz, etc.

    You signed a contract, took a punt on shifting units in America, didn’t work out as well as you hoped, your industry in general is too lazy or opportunistic to take responsibility for the excess unwanted books it routinely churns out (and how they may affect its own supply-and-demand calculus across markets), and so you want Big Mummy Government to save your local bottom line from any inter-market bleed. Can’t work any more. The book business model is changing. Everything’s up for grabs. It’s a writerly free-for-all. Not my fault. But stone age industrial policy is like so yesterday. Deal. If you all stopped obsessing over PIR’s you might recognise that, properly handled, the digital revolution will make things infinitely more viable for far more marginal writers and small publishers than hard copy ever did.

    By the way: give the bloody mock ‘umble jobbing scriv’ shtick and the self-pitying hysterics a miss, matey. Nothing’s more nauseating that an elite-educated writer pretending to be a laid-off fitter & turner. It’s like a pox infesting our literary community, this blue collar posing. Tell your drip of a mate Winton to knock it off, too. You blokes choose to write. You two do pretty well compared to most. Be grateful. Or change gigs.

    Alison Croggon, before you diss me for ‘contempt’ for our writers, let me tell ya something: you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet, love. This precious lot deserve everything they get, given the load of bollocks they’ve collectively spruiked on this relatively mouse-poo sized issue. We should go the bastards until they get narky and start writing as if they mean it. Might stick a firecracker up the arse of Lit Oz at last.

    Ah, I love the internet.

  9. Jack Robertson

    Shane, should you be interested, as an independent Australian imprint I have self-published an analysis of the modest flaws in the PIR case made by you and your dead tree colleagues during this debate, here (byebyegatekeepers.blogspot.com). According to the ‘highly-regarded’ (by J Robertson) independent literary critic J Robertson, it offers ‘profoundly insightful insights’ in an ‘exciting new Australian voice’ into the ‘vibrant thriving dazzling innovative compelling culturally singular oh you know just like totally brilliant really’ Turning Dead Trees Into Dead Words industry. As a stand-alone Considered Work of Wordy Art it is of course better written, better edited, better informed, more genteel, dispassionate, measured, respectable and respectful of our book publishing’s hard-earned authoritative stature in matters literary than the thoroughly-illegitimate blog-rant above.

    Not.

  10. sheryl gwyther

    By the sound of Jack Robertson’s raving I’m wondering if he’s a wannabe writer who’s had too many rejection letters.

    My biggest concern is the damage to Australian children’s books if American editions are allowed to be imported here. I’ve seen the US version of an Australian picture book, a book of subtle humour (that Aussie kids understand perfectly) changed by the US publisher’s gatekeepers into a bland, humourless, dumbing-down, lollypop sweet facsimile of it’s original twin, the version first published here.

    Then there are the Australian junior fiction and YA novels by well-known authors sold to US publishers for sale in the US where the spelling is changed – colour becomes color, Mum becomes Mom, pavement becomes sidewalk, rugby becomes gridiron; and where the essence of Aussie humour so loved by our kids has been re-wired to connect with American children.

    Now, if that dumbing-down is what American parents want for their children who am I to argue. BUT this is what could be imported for our children to read in the future because Dymocks, Woolworths and Coles want to profit big time and be damned with the consequences. I call it un-Australian.

    Jack Robertson may not have considered this aspect of the lifting of Territorial Rights, but many parents, teachers and librarians find the idea absolutely abhorent.

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