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.

Segue to parallel import restrictions (PIR) on books, and Australian authors. Most people have watched bewildered as this arcane subject has gone back and forth between the productivity commission and the army of authors and publishers opposing their recommendation to wind the thing down over the next three years, without getting much of a handle on what it is, or why mild-mannered writerly types are ready to tie on the bandanna and charge the Commissions headquarters. In that respect they haven’t advanced their cause terribly well. The problem is the cause is so ambiguous that it’s hard for authors to mount a case that is much more than a strangulated cry of “help!”

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In a nutshell, the PIR rule effectively allows Australian publishers the option of putting out an exclusive edition of a foreign or Australian book, as long as they bring it out within 30 days of overseas publication, and keep it restocked as it sells out of bookshops (within 90 days of it becoming generally unavailable).

The PIR has different pros and cons for different groups. For Australian publishers, it creates a sector monopoly — they can cherry pick the best international books, acquire the rights and publish them here without the competition of a pallet of the US edition suddenly arriving. The most in-demand books thus have a different jacket, interior design, and maybe foreword or intro to the Oz edition — and all the costs that go with an extra print run, etc, rather than simply getting a slice of a larger US or UK print run.

That benefits most Australian authors indirectly — in that it supports a local publishing industry to publish their books, most of which will never get an overseas edition, there thus being no competing editions to prevent from being imported.

For top rank Oz authors however, it’s quite different — because the PIR prevents overseas “remainder” editions from being dumped on the market. The “remainder” is the books left over from an edition after the publisher has unilaterally declared that the book has stopped selling in numbers large enough to make it “remunerative”. Once a remainder is declared, in general so does the author’s income — most contracts state that authors receive no royalties on remainder sales. Remainders are usually sold as a job lot to book wholesalers. Publishers argue that remainder sales are at a loss, so no royalties should accrue. They’re meant to give authors the opportunity to buy up the whole remainder, but the first the author often knows of it is the nausea inducing feeling of seeing 100 copies in the $1 bin at the “Book and Car Parts City” outlet.

Given that Australian authors are more likely to be continuous sellers in Australia than overseas, that becomes a problem — without restrictions, an overseas edition of a Tim Winton or Helen Garner that a publisher took a failed punt on, can be remaindered while the Oz edition is still going gangbusters. Without PIRs a book chain could buy up the remainder, and compete with the Oz edition by selling it for a fraction of the price and with no reward going back to the author. Even is royalties were offered on remainders, the price cut would take the author from a $2 royalty per book, down to 30 or 40 cents.

But the problem for Australian readers in protecting authors from this, and in making it possible for small publishers to cultivate a list of foreign titles that keep them in business, is that foreign books are rendered more expensive. Michael James may have demonstrated that this does not apply to top ten fiction sellers, but that’s not the main concern — the price of overseas non-fiction books is. Books on politics, history, science etc that sell for $US15 or so ($A18 at current exchange rates), sell for $A30 or $A40 here. Of course, even a mass foreign import would have a higher price because of transport costs, etc, but it wouldn’t have all the oncosts of a local edition.

The result is, I believe, a real restriction on Australian intellectual life, because sometimes quite short books have ludicrous prices that make picking up 3 or 4 of them on one topic impossible or onerous. I don’t know about other people but I spend a reasonable amount of my time in Borders reading books for the price of a coffee, that I would buy, if they were $5 to $10 cheaper, as many might well be. Or I order them second-hand overseas and put up with the three to four week wait.

The foreign edition rule made some sense 20 years ago — it makes much less now. And with the arrival of online books, it makes none at all. Many authors seem to imagine that the decline of the physical book is far away off in some Jetson’s future — as did the mainstream news organisations, before their sales and ad revenues fell off a cliff.

With books, once the threshold is crossed, the decline may be even more precipitous, since the differentials are so great. A kindle (which can’t be used in Australia) pays for itself in ten books, and after that a thirty dollar book costs eight bucks, is instantaneously delivered.

So how would a regime of “local editions” be enforced once online books become more comprehensive? The whole idea is paradoxical. Is it proposed that Australians be restricted access to online books so that local editions can be preserved? Or that an entirely separate Australian online system be established, to be run as well as Telstra, Optus etc run everything else they touch?

One sympathises with local authors and publishers, but really, they’ve been utterly reactive in this fight. PIR was always jerry-built. Now it’s ludicrous, and as usual it’s been defended in the worst possible way, with all this guff about how we “have to tell our stories etc etc”. The more you leave an untenable situation unexamined, and simply defend the status quo, the more you look like a bunch of rent-seekers — word-farmers defending the intellectual superphosphate bounty. With the inevitable result that sympathetic people wash their hands of you.

The “remainder” problem for Oz authors obviously has to be addressed — and it’s an area the productive commission has barely addressed. But publishers who have built a business on PIR protection better start thinking smarter, faster, about the new media environment. And the sector as a whole should come up with concrete new proposals for ensuring that Australian literary culture is viable, because it is pretty clear that the Rudd government is not going to be politically positioned as doing favours for its inner city elitist latte lapping sodomite author mates.

Macedonia, whether the Greeks — speaking of Greek — like it or not, exists.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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