Jul 17, 2009

Book parallel import restrictions a ludicrous anachronism

The "remainder" problem for Oz authors obviously has to be addressed -- and it’s an area the Productivity Commission has barely addressed.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


You can call it the Macedonia phenomenon. You can be talking to a Greek intellectual, activist whatever about borders as prisons, global flows of the new multitudes, the media flux of the instantaneous infosphere, the deconstruction of left/right politics and the brave new world we’re entering — and then you ask a question about Macedonia.

“There is no such thing as Macedonia!” they shout, rising from the cafe table knocking over the retsina, which then dissolves the tile work. “The former Yugoslav territory is an usurper of…,” etc etc, for about half an hour or more, in an excursus that goes all the way back to Alexander the Great. You tapped that one point at which globe stops.

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18 thoughts on “Book parallel import restrictions a ludicrous anachronism

  1. sheryl gwyther

    Guy, why haven’t you commented on the fact that overseas (e.g. North American) editions of Australian-authored children’s books would then be allowed into Australia? These would be changed in spelling, content, humour, reference, landscape etc to suit American tastes.

    Why would any parent or teacher want this for Australian children? Imagine the spelling difficulties then?

    I’ve seen two versions of the same picture book written by an Australian author. One was the original available here, the other was a copy from an American publisher and sold in the US. It had been changed into a bland, superficial-sweet facsimile of its twin. Luckily it was only available in the US – lifting the Parallel Import Restrictions would allow it to be available here in competition of the true version.

    I know which version I’d want my kids to read.

  2. skink

    I too have given up on buying from Australian bookshops. I have found it cheaper and easier to buy new or second hand from overseas sellers, who often carry a broader range than found here. Powell’s is brilliant. Even with postage costs, it is cheaper than buying here, that is if you can even find teh title you are looking for. I bought a children’s book by an American author last week: A$27, for a soft cover book of 16 pages. Cue outrage.

    ‘latte sipping sodomite authors’ ?

    not that there is anything wrong with that

  3. Steve Carey

    Guy, a suggestion. Authors, publishers and independent booksellers insist that the result of the Productivity Commission’s proposals would be disastrous for the local publishing scene. Big retailers insist that it won’t be, and will bring down prices. Why not make a little ‘Time Capsule’? I’d love to hear either side make a specific, verifiable prediction about what will happen in, say, five years time. Let’s put our mouth where our money is.

    Me, I reckon you’ve got it right that other factors – the Kindle and its ilk – are much bigger issues than Parallel Importing. So for what it’s worth, my very specific prediction is that in five years time neither side will be able to point to any clear result of these changes, if they happen.

  4. Roy Travis

    You are right in stating that the Kindle is not available in Australia, however there are at least three similar models freely availabe and bying books on line is easy.

  5. Duncan Beard

    “I know which version I’d want my kids to read.”

    The version that you can buy for less than half the price? I’m willing to live with a couple of exta ‘z’s for that. Actually, I could probably buy a UK edition at half the price and have exactly the same spelling.

    I’m a voracious reader and I haven’t bought a book from an Australian bookstore for about 2-3 years. The remarkably asinine, self-interested responses from authors and publishers to this debate has done nothing but firm my determination to continue buying cheap books online (although apparently my doing this will somehow be responsible for the ‘death of books’ – snort).

  6. Anne Coulthurst

    A few points:

    Although I agree that a bookshop can be a haven and a lovesome thing, God Wot….

    First, some years ago I wanted to purchase ex Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s book apologising for the Vietnam War. It was, unbelievably, not available in Australia, and the few bookshops which I approached (one prestigous local name amongst them) weren’t interested in buying it in for me. It was then that I turned to the internet and was delighted to see how much more cheaply most books which I wished to read could be purchased from overseas. I’ve stuck to this, since, in the main.

    Second, this week on the ABC’s Jon Faine’s 774 morning program he read an anonymous email from a ‘publishing industry insider’ which said that the latest Harry Potter, a best seller if ever there were one, was 40% more expensive in Australia than anywhere else in the world. If true, this is outrageous, and blatant profiteering, in my opinion.

    Third, silly comparisons, like one this week, comparing dental expenditure (necessary) with book-buying (discretionary) do not help. I’ve yet to learn that any of our valued Australian writers needed to spend nearly $150,000 in the last 2 years upgrading the tools of their trade to enable them to practice and enhance their professional duty.

    Fourth, I’m genuinely sorry for our gifted writers. However, I’m not responsible for their economic woes. I’m poor, too.

    Last, I’ve often sent Australian books which I particularly admire to friends overseas. Sadly, and usually, they just don’t get it, and that’s the rub. Too often, our books are too idiosyncratic for others to enjoy.

    In sum, I’m on the side of the consumer (c’est moi). If the bottom falls out of Australian publishing, then them’s the sad and deplorable breaks. However, I’ll still have the internet and I’ll still be able to read what I want, no thanks to the publishing industry which has screwed this Australian consumer for all of her life.

  7. sheryl gwyther

    Duncan, it’s not so much the extra ‘z’ that stick in my neck, it’s the sanitising and forced blandness by the American publishing ‘gatekeepers’. Why do American parents allow it to happen to the books their children read?

    And re the UK, you wouldn’t believe how much harder it is to get published in the UK than the US. As a certain British literary agent said, ‘Publishers are very parochial over here.’

    Re your comment re self-interested authors – wouldn’t you fight to protect your job?

    Mind you, you might be paying a few dollars more for a book now (about what you’d pay for a meal out, I presume) and I’m still only getting 10% of the RRP of that book (if I’m lucky) – and certain large booksellers are getting up to 50% of the RRP, some of whom even add more to the RRP. I know who are the greedy sods in this debate.

  8. Michael James

    Guy, nice article but still a tad frustrating because, while we can all agree that there has been much confusion, and those poncy latte sipping writerly types (not gonzo-types like yourself!) don’t seem to be able to put up a defence to save their lives, one of your last statements also had me gritting my teeth:
    “The “remainder” problem for Oz authors obviously has to be addressed .” Doh, yes! But what is your solution if you kill the PIR?

    As to Kindle and other technology (first wait for Apple….later this year probably) that is a world wide problem for the industry, and so it may or may not kill the paper book industry but it is really not part of this discussion. But the potentially fantastic thing about e-books will be the elimination of many middlemen. With the phenomenally successful iPod App Store run by Apple, some authors (mostly games but sometimes other things) get rich overnight–almost literally as tens of thousands start downloading their creation at $4.99 or whatever. Apple keep one third but the author keeps the rest! It is transparent to borders so forget international agreements–there is no longer the need. I think we will see the old publishing industry fight this more than anything else.

    Back to books. All my data tables were never intended to settle the argument but rather provide a bit of real world data to at least partly test some of the wild statements being put about. (to remove some of that confusion; probably an utter failure). To this day there are still bloggers boasting they can save 46cents on buying Breath from Book Depository. Oh yes, that is all the argument we need to destroy the local book industry! (And I sense that not a single reader or rabid blogger has actually bought and received Breath from BD.) And while you and I may not spend much time reading the top ten (my list was actually the Indie list, not the best seller list) it does represent most of what joe public is buying. And consequently carry more political import (hence why Allan Fels holds up a copy of Breath to “prove” his point….).

    For some of your conclusions or even statements to be true (and they might be) we would need more facts. In the category of books that you buy (or read in Borders) how many are subject to PIR? I did not look at that because it was not easy, or perhaps even possible for me. My second list were books that almost certainly were not subject to PIR and are hardly stocked in Australia and which I buy from Amazon, saving hundreds of dollars per order.

    The reason we need that data (and maybe some of the massive data collected by the PC is available?) is to know what is actually responsible for those higher prices. I don’t know if it is the PIR but I do know that when I have discussed it with my smaller independent bookstore, the owner has said that most of these books have too small a market and so the wholesaler/distributor/importer jack the prices up or they are just not going to bother to stock it. If most of the books you would like to buy are in this category, removing the PIR may do absolutely zilch for retail prices. (And remainders play no role in that market.) And frankly for that category of book I cannot see anyone in Oz or almost anywhere on the planet, competing against Amazon (and maybe now BD).

  9. Michael James

    Anne Coulthurst (2:33 pm). Alas, you are one of the confused readers we have mentioned. The McNamara book, its price and availability in Australia have absolutely NOTHING to do with the PIR. This is a very separate issue of the small size of the Australian retail book market, the fact that we are probably the most expensive place to ship heavy books to (maybe Ushuaia is worse?) and the fact that wholesalers et al. do not see enough profit from such small volume books, especially once it gets a few years old. For this category of book there is probably no solution except for you, me and Guy to buy from Amazon. Or allow small independent bookstores to buy direct from Amazon, which I am told they are not allowed to do.

    But please, do not make up your mind on the current argument based on the false notion that McNamara would be magically cheap if PIR disappeared.

  10. Anne Coulthurst

    Michael, you’re cavilling at my example, not the principle.

    My point was, simply, that not one bookseller would even try to get the McNamara book for me. Hence, I turned to the internet. Hence, I learnt how much cheaper it was to buy any book overseas. Hence, Australian booksellers and publishers created a problem for themselves,which, like Topsy, just growed.

    I’m sick of all the circumlocutions, such as: ‘books are only a few dollars more than a restaurant meal’ when it’s 10 years since I’ve had an outside meal which I could afford to pay for. These sorts of comfortable, middle-class assumptions disregard the fact that many people, avid readers even, might find it a daunting struggle to find the funds to buy a book.

    My bottom line is that anything which makes it cheaper for me and my ilk is a bloody good thing. For too long, the less well-heeled have been denied access to too much of the latest writing. I’m indeed sorry for the fall-out, but self interest impels me to welcome anything which might enable me to enjoy new writing, from anywhere, more frequently.

    And no, I don’t confuse the issues. I didn’t expect the McNamara to be cheaper, I just expected that I’d be able, somehow or t’other, to actually get a copy from an Australian bookseller, at any price, but none would help. At the time it was important to me. The internet, then, and by default, became my primary bookseller, i.e. slackness and disinterest forced me elsewhere, never to return.

    And do you have an opinion about the Harry Potter’s being 40% more expensive in Australia than anywhere else in the world? Is this true, do you think? If so, why was it so?

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