“Stand by for elegantly expressed outrage as authors and publishers respond to the Productivity Commission’s recommendation to end the ban on importing books,” says The Australian, expressing the kind of contempt for writers, culture and language which has fueled this debate.

The Australian book industry is now considered one of the major English language publishing markets. Over the past three decades Australian publishers have fought hard to have this market treated as an independent player alongside the US, UK and Canadian markets. Each international market has a territory within which it can confidently do business. No longer, if the Productivity Commission’s recommendations are to go through.

Australian publishers, and therefore writers will be left with LESS protection than that afforded to publishers and writers in the rest of the English — speaking world (other than New Zealand) and we’ll be back where we were in the 1950s, when most Australian writers were forced to publish overseas. The Australian industry will contract. Jobs will be lost.

The headline of the article I quote from above is headed, ‘Australians have a right to buy books at the lowest prices’. But do they? They don’t seem to have the right to, say, appropriately priced dental care, and I don’t see the Productivity Commission jumping all over that. And, the bottom line is that you can get cheap books in Australia (yes, many of them through Dymocks and Big W, two of the chains lobbying for these proposed changes). The Coalition for Cheaper Books has said that the price of Tim Winton’s Breath is quoted on a UK website price as A$14.70, including delivery, compared with an Australian Recommended Retail Price (RRP) of $25. But, actually, Breath retails at Big W for $16.21 ($14.74 without the GST).

I worked, for a couple of years recently, at an independent bookstore. When a big book, such as the latest Harry Potter came out we sold it at full RRP rather than the large discounts the chains were selling it at. The thing is, people bought it at the full price because they cared about that particular shop, and they cared about books. They also had the choice of buying it cheaper at dozens of other stores. Furthermore, once you take the exchange rate into account much of the talk of how expensive Australian books are evaporates into misinformation.

Of course, what irks The Coalition for Cheaper Books is that they make so little margin on the books they sell. What concerns them is not that Australians can have books more cheaply, but that they don’t have a higher profit margin. It seems the Productivity Commission is prepared to recommend sabotaging a successful industry in pursuit of those profits.

Six months ago The Guardian, pointed out that while the current laws in Australia, “can mean that books are more expensive — and harder to get hold of — in Australia than they are elsewhere, it also allows the country’s local publishing to flourish.” It is that flourishing, that has meant, for example, that Melbourne was recently declared a UNESCO City of Literature. All those small publishing houses, independent bookshops, and writers working away on their projects on the side of other jobs.

There is no point in having cheaper Australian books if those books are not, in fact being written, and/or the publishers and bookshops that nurture them are going out of business. Cavernous stores with tables of remainders do not a city of literature (officially or unofficially so designated) make.

Worse still, what if the books that continue to be written, are written with an eye to what is the commission’s second recommendation, somewhat ominously described as, “a view to better targeting of cultural externalities.” Excuse me?

As one bookseller joked yesterday: “Mulga Bill’s Bicycle: This was a really good book. Though I am unsure about the cultural externalities of the story.” Questions were asked by one festival director as to whether Cultural Externalities were, in fact, a little known 70s prog rock group (yet another group ignored by JJJ’s Hottest 100).

But no –- here is the definition:

The consumption of culturally valuable books, and the ideas they contain, can help diffuse social norms. Where more people come to understand the unwritten rules of a society, their actions become more predictable or “trustable” to others, facilitating social and economic exchanges…

More generally, the reading of books of cultural value may help individuals to feel more connected to, and to be more productive within, particular social groups or the wider society, to the benefit of all. …the ideas embodied in some books have had far reaching impacts.

Most obviously, the core ideas that were embodied in books such as The New Testament, The Wealth of Nations, Mein Kampf and The Female Eunuch have had major impacts on how societies operate … another way that Australian books could generate external benefits is if they make Australia a more “marketable” identity to the eyes of foreigners.

As writer and blogger Lili Wilkinson says, “basically, the only books that should be supported in Australia are a) “culturally valuable” books that make us better people (in a creepy Orwellian-sounding way) and b) books that Americans will want to read.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find the description of cultural externalities to be supported as being those akin to the New Testament of Mein Kampf reassuring. But then it’s not reassurance the Productivity Commission is interested in. Or culture. Or writing. Or books.

Sophie Cunningham is a novelist and editor of Meanjin, as well as a former publisher.