What sets Australia’s book retail environment apart is its variety and the range of books on our shelves. Visiting booksellers always comment on this.
If media reports are right, the latest turn of events in the saga of Australian territorial copyright for books is putting that at risk.
Currently, Australian book publishers have 30 days to bring an overseas book to market here to win exclusive local distribution rights. According to the latest reports, the federal government is considering reducing this margin to zero.
This will mean that the slightest hiccup in the distribution chain will mean the publishers’ investment in a particular overseas title is wasted.
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This proposal is puzzling because it will immediately increase the risk profile of all overseas books published here.
Publishers will be forced to import or print locally fewer such books, and to focus almost exclusively on global blockbusters because these are the least risky.
The result will be fewer titles available through Australian bookshops.
More customers will be disappointed when they come looking for books and cannot obtain them and therefore they will be forced to buy more books through Amazon and other online retailers — which incidentally means less or no GST revenue for the federal government.
And there will be no reduction in book prices. In fact, as fewer books are printed here, I imagine there will probably be an increase in unit production costs.
This surely cannot be what the government set out to achieve.
Bricks-and-mortar bookshops can never compete with online retailers in terms of range. Amazon is the epitome of the long-tail business.
Under the current rules, Australian publishers and distributors act as virtual extensions to our shelves.
If they become risk averse and contract purchases of the rights to publish mid-list titles, I can see the Australian retail landscape becoming increasingly dominated by the largest retailers to the detriment of consumer choice, especially in regional and rural centers.
I understand that the government is searching for meaningful reforms in this sector. In my opinion, scrapping the 30-day rule is not the place to do it.
Introducing a 0-day rule will have serious negative effects for booksellers and consumers, especially those outside the largest urban centres and it will have no countervailing benefits for consumers or any other parts of the publishing supply chain.
I urge the government to retain the 30-day rule, which guarantees the broad and diverse range of books.
Steve Robinson is a director and co-owner of QBD The Bookshop, which has 34 shops across five states and territories. He has been in the book industry for 25 years and has closely followed the book import rules debate.